August 3, 2022

Bill Russell and Nichelle Nichols

Former Boston Celtics star Bill Russell, one of the sports world's greatest winners as the anchor of a team that won 11 NBA championships, as well as the league's first black coach, died on Sunday at the age of 88.” Reuters

Nichelle Nichols, whose portrayal of starship communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the 1960s sci-fi TV series ‘Star Trek’ and subsequent movies broke color barriers and helped redefine roles for Black actors, has died at age 89.” Reuters

Both sides celebrate the groundbreaking legacies of Russell and Nichols:

“The 11-time NBA champion, who passed away this weekend at the age of 88, was among the greatest ever to play the game of basketball. But his greatness was also measured by his achievements off the court – his tireless social justice activism reflecting America’s postwar evolution away from Jim Crow racial segregation as well as the struggle for civil rights and Black Power that transformed the country…

“He charged the overwhelmingly White NBA in the late 1950s with purposely excluding Black players. In 1961, after two Black Boston Celtics were denied service at a Lexington, Kentucky, restaurant before a preseason exhibition game, Russell led a boycott in which he and other Black players refused to play in the state… He was present, time and again, at key moments for the [civil rights] movement, from the March on Washington in 1963 to his visit to Mississippi that same year following the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.”
Peniel E. Joseph, CNN

“Bill Russell was the first true black superstar [in the NBA] and changed how the [game] was played. But that didn’t stop racism… At the same time that Russell was being honored at a country club, his home in the Boston area was vandalized. Boston was home to soft-Jim Crow. A friend said that Russell considered Boston the ‘most racist’ place he played in… [Similarly, Jackie] Robinson received constant death threats and humiliations, like the city that refused to allow him to sleep in the same hotel as his teammates. No, it wasn’t in the land of ‘Dixie’ – Mobile, or Atlanta – it was the ‘City of Brotherly Love,’ Philadelphia…

“Russell and Robinson were close not just because they shared dreams of seeing a color-blind society, but because they both worked inside and outside the system to effect change. Russell and Robinson were both intelligent and likable men who, rightfully, were red-hot angry at racists and racism. They both carried themselves with dignity and honor. Racists only made fools of themselves, not of Robinson or Russell… When Jackie Robinson died, Russell was the only pallbearer who was not a Dodger teammate. I have to believe that Jackie will be at Russell’s funeral, if only in spirit.”
Jim Thompson, RedState

“An oft-prickly personality who faced and overcame atrocious racism directed at him, Russell was fiercely outspoken about lots of issues — often, alas, on the other side from conservatives (myself included). But there never was any doubt about Russell’s sincerity, public integrity, or devotion to his charitable endeavors. If Bill Russell didn’t always seem likable, he almost always was admirable — even when he may have, in an adversary’s opinion, been wrong. And through it all, he was sui generis. As a winner without peer in the history of modern team sports, as a trailblazer, and as a man of principle, Bill Russell stood tall.”
Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner

“The fifties and sixties were excruciating years in America, and they became a social gantlet for Russell… That he lived to be an uncontroversially beloved culture-hero—given the fires of those years, and given the pressures he so elegantly accepted—is one of history’s miracles, a dark but brightening irony that might have made him cough up one of his surprisingly high-pitched, cackling laughs. That he existed at all, a physical marvel, a diligent participant in struggle, is an even greater blessing. It’s worth celebrating. The N.B.A. should always hold an empty seat, somewhere near the floor, for Bill Russell.”
Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker

“In a confident yet unassuming fashion, Nichols became an essential part of series creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a more inclusive future for humanity… This was no mean feat, given that Star Trek began just after major civil-rights legislation challenged the state-backed segregation long dominant in the American South…

“As Uhura, Nichols created one of the first prominent black female roles on American television; she has been cited by many as an inspiration. She even shared one of the earliest interracial kisses, with co-star William Shatner (Captain Kirk). Network executives were nervous about the scene and wanted to have a take without such a kiss just in case, but the two actors intentionally messed up every non-kiss take…

“Being an integral part of one of the most successful pop-culture franchises ever, and helping break down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding between fellow earthlings — that’s quite a legacy, one we should expect to live long and prosper.”

Jack Butler, National Review

“In an era when Black women mainly played servants or entertainers on TV — if they were on TV at all — she was an officer on the Enterprise with whom Capt. Kirk conferred as seriously as he did Mr. Spock and all the other officers. I remember watching the show as a little girl and marveling that she was even there. She was smart and beautiful and clad in a red thigh-high form-fitting tunic that somehow she managed to carry off as legitimate astronaut wear…

“Her place on ‘Star Trek’ was so ground-breaking that, according to a story Nichols told widely, Martin Luther King Jr. urged her not to leave the show when she shared with him that she was about to quit. ‘The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen,’ she said King told her. The idea of a Black actor embodying a character — an astronaut, a spy, a farmer — who is not a slave, not a servant and not defined entirely by race was remarkable then. And unfortunately, to a certain extent, it is still remarkable today.”

Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times

“Life for Nichols wasn't all about Uhura. She popped up in several feature films, including as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s mother in ‘Snow Dogs’ (2002), and she won a Daytime Emmy nomination for her 2017 guest appearance on ‘The Young and the Restless.’ But her larger and likely most enduring legacy can be gauged by the number of astronauts of color who flew into orbit on now-mothballed space shuttles and still log hundreds of hours aboard the International Space Station, either inside doing experiments or outside performing repairs. Their successes became real because Nyota Uhura helped make them seem less impossible than they once did. Martin Luther King Jr., [the] unlikeliest of Trekkies, had it right.”

Gene Seymour, CNN

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