If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know I don’t love what we call in my industry, “obituary” cartoons. I don’t like drawing a cartoon commemorating someone’s death only because that person was famous. I would rather memorialize someone who contributed something to society, whether positive or negative. What made it important for me to draw a cartoon on Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell is that they were both pioneers in advancement for black people and they both died a day apart. It felt it was appropriate to put them together.
Nichelle Nichols died Saturday and Bill Russell died Sunday. Neither set out to be civil rights icons, but that’s how it worked out.
Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek was groundbreaking for black actresses and black women in the United States. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a trekkie, told her, “for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day.”
Nichols had given Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, her written resignation after just one season. She was planning to go to Broadway as she preferred the stage over the screen. She ran into Dr. King at an NAACP banquet who told her upon hearing that she was leaving, “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.”
She stayed. Rodenberry had actually torn up her resignation even before she told him she had changed her mind. He wasn’t having it and knew the importance of having an incredibly talented black woman in that role. Her beauty was just a bonus.
After a scene was aired where she kissed William Shatner, the studio received a letter from a white Southern bigot who wrote he was against “mixing of the races,” but wouldn’t blame Captain Kirk for kissing a woman of Uhura’s beauty. Captain Kirk was a racial pioneer too. As Eddie Murphy so eloquently put it, “Captain Kirk once fucked a green bitch.”
Dr. King compared Nichols’ role as Uhura to the ongoing marches in the Civil Rights movement. He told Nichols she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see black people appearing as equals. She didn’t take it lightly.
While filming “Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country” in 1991, Nichols refused to say two lines in the script that made her uncomfortable. One was in a scene where Klingons were arriving on the Enterprise and she was to say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” The other was, “yes, but would you like your daughter to marry one [a Klingon].”
Bill Russell stood his ground too. He felt he was a player for the Celtics, and not for the city of Boston.
Russell, an 11-time NBA champion, is considered a pioneer in men’s basketball. He was one of the first Black superstars in the league. One of, if not the, first to be paid equally with White players. He was the first black coach in the NBA. He was a 12-time all-star and won Most Valuable Player five times. He captained the U.S. basketball team and won gold in the 1956 Olympic summer games.
In college, where he won two national championships, his team was often forced out of hotels and restaurants due to segregation. In the pros, he received racist taunts from fans, including Boston Celtic fans. He was active in the Black Power movement and supported Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to be drafted.
He once said, “I dislike most white people because they are people … I like most blacks because I am black.” A lot of white people, including teammates, wondered how a guy whose home was broken into by whites who left racist graffiti on his wall and feces in his bed could say something like that.
While Russell praised the Celtics for being racially progressive, he felt Boston was not. He alienated Celtic fans by saying, “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” But perhaps Boston alienated him first.
Russell refused to attend the ceremony when his jersey No. 6 was retired in 1972. He also refused to attend his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1975. When 30,000 Celtic fans greeted their team returning from winning another championship in 1969, Russell wasn’t there. He had retired and was done with Boston and wouldn’t return to the city for years. He didn’t even tell his coach he was done. He was done.
When Russell originally retired, he demanded that his jersey be retired in an empty Boston Garden. The Celtics re-retired his jersey at the new Fleet Center in 1999. This time Russell was in attendance, as well as Wilt Chamberlain (his greatest rival), Larry Byrd, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The extended applause brought tears to his eyes.
President Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Obama also met Nichelle Nichols in the Oval Office in 2012 where he confirmed for her that he too had a crush on Lieutenant Uhura.
I don’t believe either Russell or Nichols set out to become Civil Rights pioneers, but that’s what they became.
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