Ronald McNair was just 9 years old when he struck a blow for racial equality at the public library in his small hometown in segregated South Carolina in 1959.
Little black boys weren’t allowed to check out library books, so the librarian refused.
“He decided to stage his own little sit-in,” recalled his older brother, Carl McNair.
The police came, Ronald’s mother came and she promised he’d take good care of the books. Finally everyone agreed to let the precocious boy check them out.
“That’s how Ronald integrated our library,” Carl McNair said with a smile. “He was always ahead of the rest of us.”
McNair flew from Atlanta to Montana State University on Tuesday to be this year’s speaker for MSU’s Martin Luther King Jr. observance, to tell college students how his younger brother lived and died.
King, the civil rights movement and the civil rights acts passed by Congress had a profound impact on their lives, opening doors of opportunity, McNair said. He gave credit to many “unsung heroes,” black and white, who fought to end discrimination.
“White people died too,” he said. “They wanted justice and equality.”
His brother, Ronald, would go on to graduate at the top of his still-segregated high school class, earn a Ph.D. in laser physics from MIT and become in 1984 the second African-American to fly into space on a NASA shuttle.
Yet two years later in 1986, Ronald was one of seven astronauts killed when the Challenger shuttle exploded after takeoff. He was 35 years old when he died, leaving a wife and two children.
McNair recalled his brother said the shuttle was iced up and the launch would probably be scrubbed. He still remembers seeing the explosion live on television.
“I thought I was watching a sci-fi movie, it was so surreal,” he said. For the following year, the family had to see the footage over and over again with every news update.
Today, McNair goes around the country, speaking about his brother to keep his legacy alive. Lots of buildings and schools have been named for his brother, but many people still don’t know who he was.
The boys grew up in a home with a pot-bellied stove and a roof that leaked so badly, floorboards rotted and Ronald’s foot once broke through, McNair said. Their dad was an auto body repairman and their mother, Pearl, was a teacher who had to take agricultural jobs in the summer to make ends meet.
The boys were big fans of the “Star Trek” TV show, especially of black actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura.
“She was our Halle Berry,” he said. When she wanted to quit the show, Martin Luther King asked her to stay because she was one of few positive role models for black kids on television.
“Star Trek” showed whites, blacks, Asians, “even aliens, everybody getting along,” McNair said. “Maybe there was some hope out there for us.”
McNair said his brother could be serious, but also fun loving and “devilish.” He started karate clubs and played the jazz saxophone – even on his first trip into space.
Ronald was bright yet he also benefited from affirmative action in getting into MIT, McNair said. “Just give us a chance. We’ve got to do the work – just give us a chance.”
He said he is “very, very proud” of the McNair Scholars Program, a federal Department of Education program that has given scholarships over the years to 60,000 college students who were the first in their families to attend college, from low-income families or under-represented minorities. He planned to meet with MSU’s McNair Scholars students.
America has made tremendous progress since King’s assassination in 1968 – “after all we have Barack Obama in the White House,” McNair said. But he added, “there is definitely more to go.”
“Martin Luther King once said, ‘If we don’t learn to live together as brothers, we will die – perish – together as fools,’” McNair said. “I believe that. We’re all after the same things – equality, justice, the same opportunity.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.