During this Martin Luther King holiday weekend I went to see the fine movie “Hidden Figures.” Already nominated for various awards, this remarkable film recounts the story of the contribution three black women make to Project Mercury at NASA in 1962. Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson break both race and gender barriers to distinguish themselves for their participation in calculating flight trajectories in the race to space.
Astronaut John Glenn was so impressed with the mathematical genius of Katherine G. Johnson that he was willing to fly only if she provided and checked how his orbit and re-entry could be secured. Mary Jackson, by sheer force of will, got the education to join the engineering department. Dorothy Vaughn figured out how to code for the huge IBM mainframe and trained the other “colored” women to be the workforce needed to manage its potential. Rather than being out of jobs, they were the ones ready to embrace the new technology.
Each moved from the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to the center of the action, controlled by white men. Overcoming gross indignities in that segregated epoch, they demonstrated their innate giftedness and refusal to be constrained by the social conventions of their time. They lived into the perception of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
That many of us are just now learning their stories speaks to the racism that suffuses our society even now. Hidden in the larger saga of American progress are persons of color and women. Their contributions have never been central to the dominant narrative. White privilege continues to be skeptical of the intellectual prowess, even superiority, of those of African descent, and recent political processes confirm the misogyny of our culture.
It is precisely the lowly and despised that God chooses to use for divine purposes of redemption. What the world regards as foolish and of little consequence is the very instrumentality for holy transformation. As the Apostle Paul put it:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world; things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
The faith of these women is clear, and they believe in their God-given dignity enough to challenge barriers to their flourishing.
As the US space initiative accelerated its aspirations for the moon and beyond, King observed: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” His power of discernment of the human condition was keen, and he rightly noted where we put our trust as a nation.
As we observe this important holiday once again, we must embrace the reality of an unfinished agenda. Black lives matter more than ever, and hiding their promise is a sinful pursuit.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for diverse ministry contexts.