Bill Moyers: “Hidden Figures” Shows How Far We’ve Come—And Why Jeff Sessions Is Such a Threat

Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general wants to roll back progress on racial justice.

Bill Moyers January 17, 2017

Jeff Sessions speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Ariz. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Bill​Moy​ers​.com.

Racism still remains a powerful toxic stream flowing through American life. Too many people are still unseen.

As the Sen­ate hear­ings for Jeff Ses­sions’ nom­i­na­tion as attor­ney gen­er­al ran into their sec­ond day, I kept think­ing about the movie Hid­den Fig­ures, which my wife Judith and I saw three days ear­li­er. The film is based on a book by Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly about three African-Amer­i­can women in the ear­ly 1960s who lived in the seg­re­gat­ed South while work­ing on NASA’s first manned space missions.

These women were edu­cat­ed engi­neers and math­e­mati­cians — one a prodi­gy with an extra­or­di­nary capac­i­ty for cal­cu­lat­ing num­bers and the­o­rems in her head. When astro­naut John Glenn pre­pares to become the first Amer­i­can to orbit the Earth, cal­cu­la­tions for his re-entry into the atmos­phere require an urgent adjust­ment. Glenn knows whom to ask for: the smart one,” he says of Kather­ine John­son, played in the movie by Tara­ji P. Hen­son. Sure enough, she gets it exact­ly right — in the film just as she did in real life.

Yet for all her skill and tal­ent — for all her genius — John­son and the oth­er black women are rou­tine­ly sub­ject­ed to humil­i­a­tion and insults, to the con­de­scen­sion and cru­el­ty that were the com­mon lot of black Amer­i­cans when Whites Only” and Col­ored Only” signs — and burly state troop­ers enforc­ing Jim Crow laws — main­tained strict seg­re­ga­tion between the races.

Despite sev­er­al white restrooms in the NASA con­trol cen­ter where she works, when­ev­er nature calls John­son has to run half a mile to the col­ored bath­room in anoth­er build­ing. She is the only black and the sole woman among an all-white team who will not even allow her to share the cof­fee machine. When she is called out for tak­ing such lengthy breaks, her sup­pressed anguish at the sec­ond-class treat­ment sud­den­ly erupts. You can feel her pain — and then the shame of her boss, played by Kevin Costner.

While her friend Dorothy Vaugh­an (Octavia Spencer) over­sees 30 or more black com­put­ers,” as the women offi­cial­ly were iden­ti­fied, she is con­sis­tent­ly and rude­ly denied the title and pay of white super­vi­sors. Mary Jack­son (Janelle Mon­ae), the third woman, is barred from attend­ing engi­neer­ing cours­es at the town’s all-white school until a judge reluc­tant­ly agrees she can attend — the night class. Some­how these three sur­vived the mal­ice, mean­ness and per­va­sive oppres­sion of every­day life to car­ry on suc­cess­ful lives with dig­ni­ty intact.

Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in the mid-’60s glowed with pride over America’s best­ing of the Sovi­ets up in the heav­ens, and there I got to know NASA Admin­is­tra­tor Jim Webb. I attend­ed meet­ings on space pol­i­cy over which he presided, shared in moments of cel­e­bra­tion at the agency’s suc­cess­es and rel­ished his bois­ter­ous remem­brances of the first thrilling but pre­car­i­ous days of the space pro­gram. I nev­er heard these women men­tioned. There were no shout-outs to them, no news­pa­per fea­tures, no offi­cial recog­ni­tion. They were swal­lowed back into anonymi­ty and invis­i­bil­i­ty — into the suf­fo­cat­ing hold­ing pen that was Amer­i­can apartheid.

The civ­il rights move­ment was then begin­ning to gain force, a pow­er that would bring change, and at the end of Hid­den Fig­ures, we see pho­tographs of the real women and learn they final­ly earned recog­ni­tion through intel­li­gence, skill and hard work. As we left the the­ater we saw tear-stained faces through­out the audi­to­ri­um, and we ran into sev­er­al friends who had unabashed­ly wept both in joy for the three women and their ulti­mate tri­umph,” as one said, and in sad­ness at the long neglect through which they had to pass.”

I thought again of those pho­tographs lat­er that evening dur­ing the Gold­en Globe Awards, when Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV series Black-ish ded­i­cat­ed her award for all of the women, women of col­or and col­or­ful peo­ple, whose sto­ries, ideas, thoughts are not always con­sid­ered wor­thy, and valid and impor­tant. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”

Final­ly.

If he could, Jeff Ses­sions would take back all the racial progress. Now he will at last have the chance to turn the clock back, which is why Don­ald Trump chose him. I watched Ses­sions feint and evade dur­ing the hear­ings and thought what an insult his appoint­ment is to a half-cen­tu­ry of his­to­ry in which the civ­il rights move­ment helped end overt oppres­sion and won for John­son, Vaugh­an, Jack­son and count­less oth­ers the stand­ing and recog­ni­tion they earned and deserved as cit­i­zens. As Amer­i­cans.

So much strug­gle and sac­ri­fice over the years, so many burn­ing church­es, muti­lat­ed bod­ies, tick­ing bombs and blood­shed — so much ven­omous human behav­ior before we final­ly began to get it right. Racism still remains a pow­er­ful tox­ic stream flow­ing through Amer­i­can life. Too many peo­ple are still unseen.

Through his career as a pros­e­cu­tor in Alaba­ma and as a U.S. sen­a­tor Jeff Ses­sions has done what he could to frus­trate the gains of all the hid­den fig­ures” among us by attempt­ing to dis­en­fran­chise or sup­press their votes. He called the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 an intru­sion” before cyn­i­cal­ly vot­ing to reau­tho­rize it and then quick­ly sign­ing on to a Repub­li­can effort to under­mine it. When the con­ser­v­a­tive Supreme Court even­tu­al­ly gut­ted the Vot­ing Rights Act in 2013, Ses­sions said it was good news … for the South.” Since then he has cham­pi­oned vot­er-ID laws and remained indif­fer­ent as Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tures under­took a mas­sive cam­paign of repres­sion against black voters.

In the 1980s he pros­e­cut­ed civ­il rights activists on dubi­ous charges — behav­ior that when cou­pled with an alle­ga­tion that he’d called a black col­league boy,” cost him a Rea­gan-era appoint­ment as a fed­er­al judge. The NAACP, which Ses­sions once called un-Amer­i­can,” describes his record on vot­ing rights as unre­li­able at best and hos­tile at worst,” and also notes a fail­ing record on oth­er civ­il rights; a record of racial­ly offen­sive remarks and behav­ior; and [a] dis­mal record on crim­i­nal jus­tice reform issues.”

And he opposed reau­tho­riz­ing the Vio­lence Against Women Act.

Benign in man­ner, soft of voice but hard at the core, Jeff Ses­sions is the per­fect fig­ure­head for the resur­gent white nation­al­ists who now aim not to make his­to­ry but reverse it — by a hun­dred years or more if they can. This is the man to whom Don­ald Trump is hand­ing the enforce­ment of our laws from civ­il and vot­ing rights to envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, antitrust enforce­ment, hous­ing, employ­ment and all the rest.

Expect new laws but lit­tle jus­tice, and be vig­i­lant as America’s shad­ows become ever more crowd­ed with hid­den fig­ures of every shade.

Bill Moy­ers is the pres­i­dent of the Schu­mann Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy and the host of Bill Moy­ers Jour­nal on PBS.
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