From the deck of the Starship Enterprise, to the storied parquet of the NBA — Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell changed how the world saw Black Americans.
Nichols was the pathbreaking actress on Star Trek, at a time where very few Black women were key characters on TV.
"Her position of a woman in power on TV, regardless of being Black or white," Angelique Fawcette, a friend of Nichols, says.
"She was the only one, so it was super profound. And for Black women especially, it gave us hope. It makes it feel like you can do it too.”
Russell was the basketball giant who stood up to racism in sports and society.
“While I love everything that he did as a player and what he meant for the NBA overall in terms of the evolution of the game," sports journalist Jemele Hill said on WNYC.
"What he did outside of that I think has had a tremendous impact on not just on sports, but our society overall."
Today, On Point: Remembering Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell.
Marc J. Spears, senior NBA writer for ESPN and Andscape. Host of the Beyond28 podcast. (@MarcJSpears)
Bill Russell and Nichelle Nichols passed away within a day of each other. What does that loss mean for the country?
Angelique Fawcette: "Spiritually speaking, obviously, Nichelle was like a second mother to me, and gave me away in marriage. So the relationship is different. I never met Mr. Russell. And my condolences, as well. But spiritually speaking, when two people pass together, you would hope that at some point they would meet and have the same impact again, on whatever plane.
"But I think that when our cultural icons and people we love pass away, it affects the entire nation in a profound way. Not only is there sadness and pain, but we do get to have a nudge as to what they did for civil rights, human rights, how they paved their pathway.
"And I think that although I'm personally sad, and my husband is personally sad, and so is the nation, I think people remember — when any American, but when it comes to Black Americans specifically — that they did something that was so profound. That they actually helped other people. They were selfless in the ways in which they helped. And it gives everyone a nudge that they should do the same."
On the legacies of Bill Russell and Nichelle Nichols
Marc J. Spears: "It also changed a generation. And seeing somebody do things that can inspire you for greater. With Ms. Nichols, it was not just seeing a Black woman on television. It was also seeing a Black woman in the NASA space, the space space. At that time, there were Black people, Black women, probably women of color in that industry that probably never thought such was possible unless they saw her.
"So I think that's the impact that she had. that perhaps Bill Russell couldn't have. Because, I mean, there's been countless Black men who have played the sport of basketball. For Ms. Nichols, she was going into a space where, you know, a racist part, or people that just weren't educated, or just didn't believe in things that was even possible for a Black person. For a person of color, for a Black woman.
"But with Mr. Russell, he was a civil rights activist. He was an Oakland man who, you know, had roots to the south. And felt probably, I think, from being from those parts, confident that he should speak his mind. And be proud as a Black man to speak out. And was, perhaps, I won't call him the first because, you know, Ali was there certainly. And Jim Brown. But one of the first Black athletes who used their platform to help their people."
On their impact, on the court and in the public eye
Angelique Fawcette: "These were American icons. These were people who could accomplish great things. And sometimes in life, you can accomplish great things in whatever field you're in. Especially if it's entertainment or if it's in front of the public eye. And people, just as being human beings, they may look away from the person just a little bit or they might, you know, stay with the person.
"But, you know, people go through their life experiences. Fortunately and unfortunately, when one passes, there is a lot more emphasis on the person's life, and what they did and what their accomplishments were. In regards to Nichelle Nichols, she had millions of Star Trek fans, as well as millions of African American women who highly respected her. A lot of women who were not African American, who were of other nationalities, who respected her. Why? Because she had the first position of power in TV. The first woman, period.
"So, I think everyone always thought about that. That she made such an impact. And that type of impact gets into our psyche. You know, it gets into our biology of what we think about. ... It gets into who we are, and we remember that. So I think that everyone that thought about Nichelle Nichols thought good things, and it was deserved. Because Nichelle was not, if we're being real, you know, there's many ... celebrity-type people who could be very conceited. And maybe not remember where their bread is buttered.
"Nichelle remembered, and she stopped for every fan. She signed every autograph. She loved Star Trek. She knew where she came from. And she kept that. And in death, people will remember. And they'll continue to remember. And, you know, in my life, I will make sure that people continue to remember as well, about her life."
Do we fully understand the legacy that someone like Bill Russell's left behind?
Marc J. Spears: "On a different note, it's kind of funny. Unlike Ms. Nichols, Mr. Russell didn't like signing autographs. And there was certainly a grumpy side to him. Where he just didn't like signing autographs, would rather have a conversation with you, than sign an autograph. Didn't really see the value in them.
"One of my friends ... told a story about how he saw him in a restaurant in Oakland. ... And he walked up to him and he said, Mr. Russell, man, it's a pleasure to meet you. He said, Well, we haven't met. And he's like, What's your name? .. And he's like, I'm Bill Russell. Now, we've met. And he walked out the door and left. So that's like classic Bill Russell.
"But, you know, to answer your question, I give the NBA credit. Because he was basically the patriarch of the NBA, was the father of the NBA. And any time there was a celebration, whether it was like NBA All-Star Weekend or the Hall of Fame, when ... the Hall of Fame got in good graces by him. He was always the center of attention. I don't care if Michael Jordan was there, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. He was always the center of attention. So he was certainly more than respected his entire post-career."
On continuing the fight for Black representation
Marc J. Spears: "The fight isn't over. And I do think that there has been a lot of progress made, but there's much more to be made. And we saw Ms. Nichols on screen. But how many people are behind the scenes directing her? And ... how many people of color, of different sexual genders, are making this selection of who's going to be on these shows?
"I'm also a longtime member of the National Association of Black Journalists. And somebody who has written a lot about Black executives in the NBA or lack thereof. And so we got the acting role down. We got the dunking role down. But we need the coaching role down. We need the president role down. We need the general manager role down. We need the ownership role down.
"And such also needs to be the case in Hollywood, in terms of the people behind the camera, the people making the decisions, the people who own the studios. ... There just needs to be more representation all around. And yeah, we've gotten both those roles in the public, but we need the roles behind the scenes as well."
This program aired on August 8, 2022.