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 prepared 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.