Physicist and astronaut Ron McNair, who perished in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated seconds after launch, was the second African-American person to fly into space. He is remembered by his brother Carl in a short film, Eyes on the Stars, and how the power of a young boy’s curiosity can overcome cultural stereotypes about race, law enforcement and even librarians:
We knew from an early age that my brother Ron was different. When he was nine years old, Ron decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library — which was, of course, a public library, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in segregated South Carolina.
So as he was walking through the library, all these folks were staring at him, because it was white folk only, and they were looking at him and saying, you know, “Who is this Negro?”
He found some books, and he politely positioned himself in line to check out. Well, this old librarian says, “This library is not for coloreds.” He said, “I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police!” He just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, “I’ll wait.”
So she called the police and subsequently called my mother. The police came down, two burly guys, and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?” She pointed to the nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. One of the policemen says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?”
So my mother, in the meanwhile, she comes down there, and she’s praying the whole way: “Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail!” My mother asked the librarian, “What’s the problem?” The librarian said, “He wanted to check out the books. You know that your son shouldn’t be down here.”
The police officer said, “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” And my mother said, “He’ll take good care of them.” Reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books, and my mother said, “What do you say?” He said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
[Above via Brain Pickings and the essay, Eyes on the Stars…]
From The Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program of the University of Buffalo:
Dr. McNair was the first in his family to graduate from college, as well as to earn a PhD. His academic and subsequent career successes, dimmed only by his untimely death, serve as a beacon to the current generation of college students who, for many reasons, may feel that graduate education, and particularly, the doctoral degree, are inaccessible.