Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

A look back at Latrell Sprewell’s very angry ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover The image was after the P.J. Carlesimo incident and at the tightest possible intersection of sports and race — not in a good way

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Latrell Sprewell? His 35-point performance at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks facing elimination in the 1999 NBA Finals? Him dunking on Jaren Jackson in the third quarter of that game?

Maybe it was his return to the Garden for the first time in more than a decade, last year, as a “friend” of Knicks owner James Dolan, not a foe. Perhaps it’s this recent Priceline commercial, supposedly a display of Sprewell’s sense of humor — at his own expense.

Or is it a moment obscured from the public’s eyes: Sprewell choking then-Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, leaving the gym and returning, apparently to attack Carlesimo again?


Or is what you recall the aftermath, when the 24th pick in the 1992 NBA draft became a pariah? His name and likeness became synonymous with violence. The Warriors voided the then-three-time All-Star’s contract, and the NBA, a season removed from celebrating its 50th birthday, suspended him for a year after the episode escalated into an avalanche of bad press that the league did not need one month into the pivotal 1997-98 season. Several stars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen among them — were injured, Michael Jordan was all but certainly retiring, and a lockout was looming.

Then, in addition, the Milwaukee-born, Flint, Michigan-raised Sprewell, one of the NBA’s rising (albeit reluctant) stars, was labeled persona non grata. He’d admittedly committed an act of violence against his coach. It was an act that seemed to confirm every absurd fear about the rise of the overpaid, petulant, violent (and *gasp* black) athlete. It was the problem with sports, to let sportswriters and fans alike tell it. And although Sprewell acknowledged that his actions were inexcusable — “I don’t condone what I did,” he told The New York Times in 1998 — he took issue with how he was portrayed. This was epitomized by the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Dec. 15, 1997, issue.

“It’s always a picture of me looking mad or being aggressive,” he said during a news conference one week after the incident, for which he was initially suspended 10 games without pay. “I never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face. It was always negative.”

The enigmatic Sprewell was easy to cast as the villain. The former University of Alabama and Three Rivers Community College standout was an aggressive slasher and defender. His appearance was menacing — to people who associated cornrows with criminal activity. And Spree had previously fought teammates. He absolutely considered himself a fighter, but only in self-defense.

“I don’t get upset unless somebody’s doing something to me or to my family, disrespecting me to where I just can’t tolerate it,” Sprewell told Time in 2000. That’s how he viewed the altercation with Carlesimo.

The choking itself, said to have happened in practice during an argument about Sprewell’s effort (“Put a little mustard on those passes,” Carlesimo reportedly told him), triggered revealing discourse, in the pre-social-media era, about the very often uncomfortable intersection of race and sports.


Sports Illustrated flew into the eye of the storm and made a valiant effort to unpack the situations. And while the story itself excellently contextualized the NBA’s head-on collision with race, the image — Sprewell, in mid-scream — chosen for the Dec. 15, 1997, issue’s cover was provocative for the wrong reasons. Sports Illustrated was the de facto bible of sports at the time, in an era before breaking news spread via Woj Bombs and trending topics. A time when writers discussed stories with editors via phone calls — not yet in Google Hangouts, or Slack.

Phil Taylor doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about what transpired between Sprewell and Carlesimo, but as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, he called his editors to discuss how they planned to cover it. “This was a huge story … right in my backyard, and as lead NBA writer, I knew I was going to be writing something lengthy,” said Taylor, now a contributing writer for The Athletic. “I’ve often thought that if it happened now, we would have obviously been able to put something out on Twitter and everyone would have just written stories immediately. But I remember thinking that [as a weekly publication] we were not going to be able to get an immediate story out there.”

“One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too.”

The Sprewell-Carlesimo incident took place on a Monday — the worst-case scenario for the magazine, which was finalized for the mass printing on Sundays. Back then, hundreds of thousands of issues would be sent to subscribers and would be available on newsstands on the Wednesday/Thursday of the following week. Local outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle were already on top of the story. That extra time, though, did allow Sports Illustrated to fine-tune its coverage, and Taylor ended up writing two of the three stories: a look at who Sprewell was and an essay about race and the NBA.

“We knew that by the time the story came out, the story might have advanced beyond what we knew at the time we were writing,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to come up with something to better put this into context, and that’s where we started talking about the issue of race in the NBA and what the Sprewell incident had to do with that.”

In a break from covers that featured full-bleed photography, a particularly incisive excerpt from Taylor’s essay was featured — white type on a black background:

“Latrell Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach’s windpipe will surely remember Sprewell’s experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race … ”

Placing that much text on the cover of a magazine was rare for SI. “The editors liked what I wrote, and I think it was our managing editor Bill Colson … thought it was so strong that we should put those words on the cover.”

Part of Taylor’s satisfaction came from his belief that the cover would differ from what had quickly become a typical characterization of Sprewell as angry. Until he saw it, that is.

“My words … but they added that picture of Sprewell, and that was disappointing to me,” said Taylor, who didn’t see the cover until the issue came out. “One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too. But maybe that would have been inflammatory as well, because then you would have had a black man screaming at a white man. That sort of anger could be interpreted as racial, but … would have at least been more fair.”

It was unfair to Sprewell because although what he did was undeniably wrong, Carlesimo was far from … docile. He was notoriously hard on his players, and notoriously unpopular for it. “We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions,” Rod Strickland, who played for Carlesimo while with the Portland Trail Blazers, told the Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve often thought, that if it happened now, we would have … put something out on Twitter, and everyone would have just written stories immediately.”

“I played under him, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Tracy Murray, who began his career with Portland, added.

After the Warriors hired Carlesimo in 1997, he was the focal point of their “No More Mr. Nice Guy” campaign, appearing on billboards with his coaching staff dressed like a team of FBI agents. Carlesimo was depicted as an enforcer; he was celebrated for an approach that alienated players and, more importantly, never translated into success in the NBA.

“P.J. was a guy who stirred it up, and was as bellicose and belligerent as Sprewell was,” Taylor said. But Carlesimo had a vastly different relationship with the media, Taylor added. He was very cooperative and affable and would ask about the reporters’ well-being. He’d remember their first names. That charm likely played a factor in Carlesimo receiving more favorable coverage than Sprewell, who was tight-lipped with the press.

Imagery is as important to a story’s narrative as reporting or analysis. A March 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Charles Barkley in shackles. It drew criticism from Sports Illustrated staffers, readers and Barkley’s friend and colleague Kenny Smith alike. Golfweek’s infamous Tiger Woods “noose” cover, from January 2008, got its editor and vice president fired. LeBron James’ historic moment as the first black man to grace the cover of Vogue that spring was sullied by the black man-as-savage beast stereotype it projected. According to Taylor, the media routinely overlooks the reverberations of such editorial decisions.

“The media in general has always, and definitely at that time, underestimated the power of the images of black athletes,” said Taylor. “I don’t think the implications of putting an angry Sprewell out there occurred to them. I’m not even sure the implications of putting Barkley in chains occurred to them — until the backlash came.”

Taylor noted that no black editors were involved with the Sprewell story. “I might have been the only black writer or editor at that time,” he added. The magazine could have placed an expressionless Sprewell on the cover, and it would’ve been just as captivating. That’s how great the treatment is, and how powerful Taylor’s words are. But the cover — and all of the more incendiary examples that preceded it, and will surely continue to follow — represent a more hazardous issue: a failure on the part of many media professionals to grasp the complexity of stereotypes and the way they’re bound to black identity, and how all of that affects the way black people are viewed and treated.

Still, though, Taylor gives Sports Illustrated’s editors credit for deciding to explore the NBA’s racial undercurrent. After discussing the atmosphere with them, he said, Colson asked if the magazine should write about it. Taylor was stunned, as that was “edgy” for Sports Illustrated — and really for any mainstream sports publication of that era.

“They were willing to take on a controversial issue, although they kind of regressed on it … by choosing the picture they chose,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done that.”

Sprewell survived his figurative public stoning and continued his career with the Knicks and then Minnesota Timberwolves. The clothing and footwear company AND1 even branded him “The American Dream” upon his return to the NBA in 1999 — the last time the Knicks made the Finals. The events of December 1997 never impeded Sprewell’s career, but it ended abruptly in 2005 after he claimed he couldn’t feed his family on the three-year, $21 million deal the Timberwolves offered him. That Priceline commercial, where he pokes fun at his mistakes, is poignant considering the headlines that have emerged since his retirement.

Despite Sprewell’s success after the incident, he remains symbolic of poor decisions and explosive anger. Regardless of Sports Illustrated’s intentions, that’s all their cover screams about him too.

Thank you, Lonnie Johnson, for one of summer’s best toys — the Super Soaker NASA engineer’s invention changed summertime

Summer’s hot sun beams down through broken clouds. Your favorite radio station serves as the day’s soundtrack. Your favorite uncle announces that the meat that had been marinating overnight in his secret mixture is now tenderized and ready for grilling.

Kids are already in the pool, and others are filling water balloons in preparation for the family water fight later in the day. Your older cousin arrives with the toy he’s been waiting six months to use: his brand new Super Soaker.

New memories are created every summer. But one that many Americans share is unpacking one of the most sought-after summertime toys that had been sitting in the garage since they received it as a Christmas gift.

The Super Soaker, created in 1982 by former NASA engineer Lonnie G. Johnson, remains the quintessential weapon in water wars across the country, selling more than 250 million units and earning over $1 billion in sales since hitting store shelves in 1990.

As is the case with most toys, we remember the joy they brought us without considering the person who made it possible.

Before entering the United States Air Force, before becoming a senior systems engineer with NASA and long before creating one of the All-Time 100 Greatest Toys, according to Time magazine, Lonnie Johnson was a young man from Mobile, Alabama, with a strong curiosity about science and technology.

“I’ve always liked to tinker with things,” Johnson explained in a piece for BBC News Magazine. “It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow: one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that.”

By the time Johnson reached Williamson High School, an all-black high school in Mobile, he had built a 3 1/2-foot, remote-controlled robot named Linex. In 1968, Linex took first place in a science competition hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama.

Johnson was happy about the win but admitted to being perplexed by the university’s lack of interest in the young man behind the project. Although the Jim Crow era had ended a few years before, the mentality still remained.

“I have never really understood why in this country so many people look down on black people,” Johnson wrote. “I can’t say it weighed on me at the time, though. I was just so excited to have my robot, to know that it worked and that I would have a chance to show it off.”

Undeterred, Johnson continued his education on a scholarship at Tuskegee University, a historically black institution in Tuskegee, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering two years later.

Johnson went on to enter the U.S. Air Force. Later, he took a position as senior systems engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the Galileo mission. During his free time at NASA, Johnson would tinker with the things around him — just like he did when he was a child.

“I was working on a new heat pump that used water instead of Freon because Freon is bad for the environment,” Johnson told Forbes. “I was experimenting with nozzles I’d made that shot a stream of water across the bathroom, and I thought they’d make a good water gun. I was having trouble getting people to understand the hard science inventions I had, like a heat pump or the digital measuring instrument. I thought the toy was something anyone could look at and appreciate.”

Johnson didn’t know at the time that this invention would become the “No. 1 selling toy in the world.” The first water gun sold so well, Johnson said, that there was a request to expand the product line. Two weeks later, the Super Soaker 100 was crafted. There have been 19 variations of the gun in its 27-year existence.

Today, Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., a technology development company that led the way in technological innovations in the toy industry.

So, next time you pull out a fancy Super Soaker to torture your siblings, be sure to thank Johnson for enhancing the way we celebrate summer.

March on Washington Film Fest features 9th Wonder, Diahann Carroll and Eric Holder This year’s festival looks at civil rights across sports, entertainment, higher education and the legal system

The March on Washington Film Festival returns this month for its fifth year of celebrating films that explore themes of civil rights, activism and social justice.

Panels and events including actress Diahann Carroll, producer 9th Wonder and former Attorney General Eric Holder are among the highlights of the 21 events that run from July 13-22.

Holder will be on hand for a couple of events. He’s part of a panel discussing Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith before an invitation-only audience July 20 at the Supreme Court. And he and his wife, Sharon Malone, will be presenting writer Ta-Nehisi Coates with the Vivian Malone Courage Award on July 15. Vivian Malone, Sharon’s sister, was one of two students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 and became its first black graduate in 1965.

Carroll will be attending to support a documentary-in-progress co-directed by her daughter, Suzanne Kay. Festivalgoers will get a glimpse of the film from Kay and Margo Speciale about The Ed Sullivan Show and its importance in introducing America to black artists. Sullivan faced threats and boycotts for integrating his variety show, one of the most watched programs in America, but he persisted nevertheless. The full documentary is expected to be completed in 2018.

9th Wonder, the ear behind Jay-Z’s Black Album, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, will be on hand to discuss The Hip-Hop Fellow (2014) with the Kennedy Center’s new director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston, on July 21. The Hip-Hop Fellow follows 9th Wonder (also known as Patrick Douthit) as a fellow at Harvard’s Hip-Hop Research Institute, where he also taught for the 2012-13 school year. Among the records that 9th Wonder selected to be archived in Harvard’s Loeb Music Library: A Tribe Called Quest‘s The Low End Theory, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Nas’ Illmatic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

This year’s festival also marks the introduction of the Freedom’s Children Student Journalists Competition. Earlier this year, students from around the country submitted work for the chance to cover the festival for various journalism outlets. The Undefeated is participating and will be running work from the winners.

Also worth a gander:

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Deborah Riley Draper’s 2016 documentary, narrated by Blair Underwood, looks beyond Jesse Owens to the 17 other black American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, some of whom also won medals at the Games.

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

When many people think of violent clashes between college students and the police, the horrors of Kent State spring to mind. But Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, the 2008 film from directors Bestor Cram and Judy Richardson, reveals the history and context behind a standoff at South Carolina State University in 1968, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three protesters and injured 27 others who were demonstrating for the desegregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley.

Winnie

Director Pascale Lamche’s 2017 documentary about the freedom fighter and former wife of Nelson Mandela premiered this year at Sundance. Winnie Mandela sat for four interviews in two years with Lamche, and the result is a look at her fight against apartheid in South Africa and the toll it took on her and her marriage. The festival will host a discussion at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on July 19 with poet Elizabeth Alexander and Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee for Ending Racial Discrimination.

Festival attendees can check out the full event lineup and purchase passes and tickets at http://marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.

This article has been changed to correct the number of events and the relationship of Vivian and Sharon Malone.