Growing up in black America and old enough to remember, pridefully watching many blacks do something for the first time embeds possibilities in one’s historical eye. Two of the icons of my youth passed away over the weekend, William Felton Russell and Grace Dell Nichols. They are better known as basketballer Bill Russell and actor Nichelle Nichols(Lt. Nyota Uhura). An overused cliché is great minds think alike. In the cases of Russell and Nichols, it was enough that great minds thought. Both Ms. Nichols and Mr. Russell were born in the 1930s. They beat the odds and made their marks in fields that were not welcoming for people of color, pro basketball (believe it or not), and acting. As a child, I remember hunkering down in front of my family’s black and white Admiral TV and watching Bill Russell stalk the sidelines for the Boston Celtics. I had seen Russell’s fantastic outlet passes, blocked shots, and driving his biggest rival, Wilt Chamberlin, crazy—down in the blocks.
This was different
Russell was no longer another sweaty athlete doing the bidding of his cigar-smoking on-court boss, coach Red Auerbach. After a stint as player/coach, he wore the suit and tie, held the chalkboard, and signaled in plays. Mr. Russell was the first black head coach in the modern era of the National Basketball Association. Yes, he was a heroic athletic icon; but my fondest memories are of him in a suit. Besides photos of him barking orders to future Hall of Famers from the sidelines, the iconic image of him alongside Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a social justice moment burned into our collective memories.
Diahann Carroll is often credited as the first black woman on tv who was “classy.” She was cast as a nurse. For three years, Carroll answered to the name ‘nurse Julia Baker’ as the lead in Julia. Before that, in 1966, a black woman was the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise; from her first appearance in the Star Trek tv episode, Man Trap, and her final appearance in the movie The Undiscovered Country, Ms. Nichols’ intelligence and beauty were on display. When you talked to Ms. Nichols, she seemed most proud of meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols longed for Broadway but was convinced by Dr. King Jr. to stay with the show. “He told me that he was my biggest fan, and he asked me to please stay on the show — that I was a role model to Black children and women all across America … He told me that I couldn’t leave: that I was part of history,” said Ms. Nichols.
One of those women is comedic/actor Whoopi Goldberg who talked about how Ms. Nichols’ role convinced her that black people would be a part of the future. I had been fed a steady diet of the rotund or sharped-tongued maid on tv. Nichelle Nichols was gorgeous, and her sexuality was not something to be feared; her mini dress was just as short and tight as her white counterparts. In keeping with that, she and Captain Kirk ( William Shatner) had the first interracial kiss in a television series. When questions of the first interracial encounters were discussed, the fear of offending white America was always the central question. Let us not forget Nichelle Nichols was a black icon, so she also had to consider how her black fans would react. As with Mr. Russell. Ms. Nichols respected her talents and integrity and knew others would see it if they were consistent.
Nichelle Nichols has been summoned to the bridge, and maybe once more, Bill Russell can watch Havlicek steal the ball.
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