Russell was born June 13, 1917, in Racine, Wisconsin, and grew up there. Graduated from the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. Was granted conscientious objector status for the draft during WWII.
Russell and Mary met at a hostel in Massachusetts in 1939. They soon married and moved to the west coast, eventually settling in Berkeley in 1942. Both studied at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. In 1949, Russell spent a summer working with youth in postwar Japan.
Then: Russell was a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee. They were both members of Fellowship of Reconciliation and active in Berkeley CORE, protesting discrimination in stores and housing.