They boldly went beyond the color line: the invisible social construct of race inferiority

Two African American giants in their fields of endeavor transitioned beyond the stellar heavens this past weekend. Nichelle Nichols, of Star Trek fame passed on July 30; Bill Russell, legendary NBA player/coach on July 31.

Both were Christians. Nichols was a practicing Presbyterian, Bill Russell a disenchanted Protestant. Both intuitively understood that their roles in life had a greater purpose than their personal accomplishments.

Nichols, born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28, 1932. She was the third of six children born to Samuel and Lisha Nichols. They lived in Robbins, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Samuel was elected mayor of Robbins and chief magistrate in 1929. Robbins is the second oldest Black incorporated town in the north. She grew up in an environment of social awareness and civic involvement.

After graduating from Englewood High School in 1951, Nichols studied in New York and Los Angeles. The singer, dancer and actor of stage and screen landed her signature role as Lieutenant Uhura in the TV series Star Trek. The series debuted in 1966, a time when America was reckoning the residuals of past injustices, inequality of the races and a generation of Blacks not willing to wait for the overcome.

Nichols was one of the first Black women featured in a recurring role of a major television series. She was not a maid, she did not play a subservient role, she was a Starfleet Communications Officer seated on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Near the end of the first season of Star Trek, Broadway was calling; her heart was in live performance on stage. She gave her resignation to producer Gene Roddenberry.

Providence intercedes, God favors the oppressed. Nichols would attend a NAACP banquet that weekend that changed the trajectory of her life and moved her from the role of an actor into a cultural icon admired by many and inspiring generations. At the banquet, she met her greatest fan: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She told Dr. King of her plans to leave the series.

“You cannot, you cannot… for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers. If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role and is not a female role; he can fill it with anybody even an alien” King persuasively argued.

The rest is recorded in history. Actors, astronauts, young boys, and girls have been inspired by her, and admired by a POTUS. Nichols met President Obama in the Oval Office in 2012. He confirmed that he had a crush on her when he was younger, and that he was a Trekker.

Bill Russell, the legendary center for the Boston Celtic who led the team to eleven NBA titles in thirteen seasons, was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934. It was the Jim Crow era; his father, Charles Russell, grew weary of trying to navigate the social morass of legal injustice. When Bill was 8, his parents relocated to Oakland, California.

Standing against racial/social injustice is in his DNA.

His father, who raised him after his mother passed when he was twelve, was once refused service at a Monroe gas station until all the white customers were served. When he decided to leave rather than wait, the attendant stuck a shotgun in his face and threatened to kill him if he did not stay and wait his turn.

In another incident, his mother was walking outside in a fancy dress when a white policeman accosted her, told her to go home and remove the dress which he described as ‘white woman clothing.’

When Bill was 9 and living in the projects in Oakland, five boys ran by and slapped him in the face. His mother turned the incident into a teaching moment that changed his life. Katie took her son and searched for the boys; Bill expected mom justice when they found them. Instead she told him to fight them, one at a time. He won two, lost three. She told her son, “don’t cry, you did what you’re supposed to do. It doesn’t matter whether you won or lost, what matters is you stood up for yourself. and that’s what you must always do.”

Russell played collegiate basketball at the University of San Francisco, graduated in 1956 and was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Everybody thought it laughable; Red Auerbach traded Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, white players, for the second overall pick of Russell.

For a pro sports franchise located in a city that Russell called a “flea market of racism” in his memoir ‘Second Wind’, the Boston Celtics, Red Auerbach, and Bill Russell made some gutsy, groundbreaking, social construct busting moves. The Celtics put the first black NBA star on the hardwood, they played the first all-black-starting five, when Auerbach retired, he named Russell to take his place; Russell became the first black head coach in the NBA, and Russell didn’t bite his social advocacy tongue to protect his status as an NBA star player/coach. Russell fully engages in the civil rights movement of the 1960s,

He was front row at the Lincoln Memorial for MLK’s historic march on Washington, he led his Black teammates in the boycott of a exhibition game in Kentucky; the hotel restaurant denied them service. He joined other Black athletes in support of Muhammad Ali. His stands, and his transformational autobiography, ‘Go up for Glory’ influenced other athletes to offer their opinions about race, politics and social injustice. Not just to dribble and shut up.

Russell never pulled back from speaking out for civil rights, against racism, and for social justice. As recent as 2020, he took note of the George Floyd killing. With Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, Floyd couldn’t breathe. Chauvin, ignored pleas from Floyd, and defied the pleas from the onlookers gathered, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

“Yet another life stolen by a country broken by prejudice and bigotry. But what can we do about it? Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time,” Russell wrote in a 2020 essay in Slam Magazine.

What led to Russell’s disenchantment with Christianity was the same hypocrisy that led Dr. King to write his letter to the white churches from the Birmingham jail. In the 1960s, Russell saw this dichotomy in the Christian faith: Christian principles, ethics and resistance to the civil rights movement. He grew disenchanted with Christianity.

In Luke 17:1-2, Jesus cautioned His disciples, “offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Bill Russell the Presidential Metal of Freedom.

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