There’s a reason for the simultaneous mourning and celebration of the lives of a basketball player and an actress, both out of the public eye for years. Nichelle Nichols, 89, and Bill Russell, 88, were born during the Great Depression into a society that defined them as second-class citizens simply because they were Black.
One of the most dominant high school and college basketball players in the country, Bill Russell led Team USA to gold at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. He then led the formerly mediocre Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, including a record eight in a row, during a decade of intense racial strife in that city. As much as many white Bostonians hated cheering for Black players, they made an exception for the Black man whose play created the city’s first great sports dynasty.
But it wasn’t his athletic success than made him a hero. Russell was also an active civil rights crusader who didn’t ignore the racial inequalities of the day for the sake of making his integration into the locker room and the arena floor smoother. He contributed money to the movement and recruited other Black athletes. He attended Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.
He was a man of conscience with an abiding hope in the American ideals the march represented. His dignity and leadership made millions of otherwise indifferent citizens more sympathetic to the cause of civil rights.
Nichelle Nichols wasn’t a world-class athlete, but her image was beamed around the world. In 1966 she assumed the role of Lt. Uhura, the communications officer and fourth in command of the starship Enterprise on “Star Trek.” It was a revolutionary bit of casting.
She was the first Black actress to have a non-subservient role on a television series. Her character was beautiful, intelligent and utterly different from the depiction of Black women in popular culture at the time. She was a declaration that Black people would someday enjoy full equality with white Americans. It was a shocking premise for American television.
But it wasn’t her television success that made her a hero. Like Russell, Nichols lived by her principles. When she wanted to quit “Star Trek” after the first season to do a stint on Broadway, MLK talked her out of it. Her role was too important to the advancement of Black people, he said, for her to step away. She gave up Broadway and thus became an indispensable part of a pop culture phenomenon that has shaped the attitudes about race of several generations.
Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell reminded America that it could do better. By going boldly where few Americans had gone before, they defined what this country can be.
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