Monday, January 16, 2017

Enlightened Words and Hidden Figures

I've always admired Martin Luther King, Jr. for his eloquence, his profound crafting of words, but most of all, for the courage of his message. He's long been a personal hero of mine.

I think a good chunk of the world population could probably name the author of the "I Have a Dream..." speech, and many may even know more of the words of that powerful oration by heart:
"...that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Amen to that.

Rev. King wrote the speech in 1963 and it's probably his most famous. But the body of this man's work went far beyond this, and many of his masterfully-articulated thoughts have outlived him, ringing down through the decades as undeniable truths long after his death.

"Darkness can not drive out darkness;
Only light can do that.
Hate can not drive out hate;
Only love can do that."

"The time is always right to do what is right."

"Love is the only force capable
of transforming an enemy into a friend."

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
                    -Letter written in Birmingham City Jail

"Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects
revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

                   - From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly."
                   -Letter written in Birminghan City Jail

As we honor the memory and spirit of the man today, the E-X3 technical lab in Chicago has taken it a step further. They will be showing a hologram of MLK Jr. delivering his iconic I Have a Dream speech today. (Wow. Wish I could be there!)

So, yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. has always been a hero of mine.

But now I have three more heroes. Three almost forgotten heroes from the same era, who only now, after more than fifty years, are finally coming into the light and getting the respect and the credit they have so long deserved.

On Friday, I went to see Hidden Figures, the new motion picture about the unheralded African-American women behind NASA's space program. It may be no exaggeration to say that the space program might not exist without them because it could very easily have died a very sudden and fiery death had they not been there as part of NASA's team. Even if they were a part of the NASA team that was shuffled off to the basement of a rundown building at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and subjected to unconscionable acts of segregation and discrimination. They were present, but not accounted for.

What they did mattered. What they did was remarkable. And their story was so exceptional, it left me wondering, "Why have I never heard about these amazing people before?"

Let's go back to the very beginning. How did these women come to work at NASA in the first place? In 1942, the US became involved in WWII and with a severe shortage of available "man"-power, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination by defense contractors. Later, he signed an order to hire more African-American workers. Shortly after that, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics--NACA, which would evolve into NASA--began hiring college-educated black women with skills in math and chemistry.

It took a war to open the door of opportunity.

Katherine Goble Johnson was a human computer. Literally. Her work predated the first IBM machine ever installed at NASA. They relied on her to check and validate extremely complex mathematical calculations. Her calculations for "First American in Space" Alan Shepard's flight were crucial to the success of his flight. Later, they relied on Katherine to invent math that didn't even exist to apply to John Glenn's Freedom 7 flight--the first orbit and re-entry of an American manned spacecraft. As the movie portrays, it's true that John Glenn insisted she verify the numbers the newly installed IBM computer produced. Yet, her involvement was never brought to light in The Right Stuff, a movie about the evolution of the Mercury space program, with John Glenn as a central figure.

Katherine went on to do calculations for Apollo 11--the first mission to reach the Moon--and even did the math for many of the contingency procedures that brought Jim Lovell's Apollo 13 crew safely back to Earth after an explosion aboard their command module. (She was also never mentioned in the very famous Apollo 13 movie about that mission.)

She continued to work with NASA during the space shuttle missions, retiring in 1986. Yet she never received national acclaim for her work during her career.

Hidden figures, indeed.

So how did this amazing story finally get told? You can thank a writer for that. In 2010, author Margot Lee Shetterly visited her father at Christmas. He had worked with many of these women and started a conversation with his daughter about the so-called "human computers"--many of whom she knew from her childhood. Ms. Shetterly decided to write their story, and spent the next three years researching records and archives with the help of Mary Gainer, a NASA historian, and her staff.

In 2014, soon after Harper Collins agreed to publish the book entitled Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race, producer Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love) heard about it and decided to do a movie based on the events, recruiting musician Pharrell Williams (who was raised in Hampton) to co-produce and write the score.

Suddenly, the world began to take notice.

When Katherine and her co-workers' story began to surface, she finally received an award worthy of her work and dedication--a Presidential Medal of Freedom--in November 2015, some 54 years after her remarkable contribution to our nation's fledgling space program and nearly 30 years after her retirement from a long and productive career.

In May 2016, NASA opened the $30 million Katherine G. Johnson Computation Research Facility at Langley. Perhaps better late than never. At least she was alive to see the honors bestowed upon her. Katherine G. Johnson is 98 years old.

But she wasn't working alone. Her fellow female African American co-workers, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (mathematical engineer and Fortran programming expert) and Mary Jackson (the first woman to become an aerospace engineer) had equally remarkable--and until now equally obscure--careers. Unfortunately, they did not live to enjoy the long-overdue recognition.

I'm so glad I saw their incredible story. And I'm so glad they chose to release it just prior to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial holiday. That probably wasn't a coincidence. And it's the reason this blog is more of a reflection than a review, though I do highly recommend Hidden Figures for all the reasons above, and because I think it's important to understand the inequities these women dealt with--and overcame--on a daily basis.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary, an outstanding writer and speaker, and the leader of a profound movement for peaceful change within our country. He gained respect for his famous words of inspiration and vision at a time of great turmoil in our nation's history--the same era these women were struggling to be heard, recognized and accepted for their capabilities and their vast contributions to our country--their hidden figures.

Have a great MLK Jr. Day.


  1. I loved that movie and have been watching some of the documentaries about that time (which also don't mention any of these women). Hidden indeed. But beyond their story is the wonderful message of not letting anyone stop you from reaching your full potential. Of pushing boundaries and limits set by others. Still a powerful message for our time. :-)

    1. Absolutely agree, Pauline. The barriers these women managed to overcome to make such significant accomplishments was amazing. In their case, it wasn't just a glass ceiling, it was more like a brick wall (or a slammed door). Good message for writers there, too. :)


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