Black people were marching all over the South. Dr. King was leading people to freedom, and here I was, in the 23rd century, fourth in command of the Enterprise.
Star Trek first aired during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, between the time when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Supreme Court declared prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.
Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, television’s first major Black female character who wasn’t a maid, did not at first feel the full weight of her role’s significance until after the first season was finished and she handed her resignation to Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator.
In a 2011 conversation with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nichols told the incredible story of how one particular fanboy convinced her to stay after all. She gave notice on a Friday, and attended an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills the next day. At the event, someone approached her, saying he had a fan waiting to speak to her.
In her own words:
When I turned around, I was looking into the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, walking toward me with a brilliant smile on his face.
“Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television. It’s brilliant, it’s beauty, and it’s intelligence. And you do it with warmth and grace.”
“Thank you so much. But I’m going to miss my co-stars–”
“What are you talking about?”
“I had just told Gene I’m leaving the show because–”
“You cannot leave, do you understand? It has been heavenly ordained. This is God’s gift and onus on you. This is a non-stereotypical role. This is not a Black role, this is not a female role. It can be filled by a woman of any color, a man of any color, even another alien. This is a unique role in a unique point in time that breathes the life of what we are watching for: equality.
“You have no idea the esteem that we hold for you. You have no idea the power of television. This man [Gene Roddenberry] has created a reality, and because it’s in the 23rd century, and you are Chief Commanding Officer, fourth in command of a star ship on a 5 year mission where no man or woman has gone before, it means that what we are doing today is just the beginning of where we’re going. You cannot leave. Besides, Star Trek is the only show that my wife Coretta and I allow our little children to stay up late and watch. And Nichelle, I can’t go back and tell them this, because you are their hero.”
Dr. King not only outed himself as one of the founding Nerds of Color then, he helped Nichols fully realize how much larger this role was than a springboard for her to get a gig on Broadway. The mere existence of a high-ranking African woman on the Enterprise symbolized a future where all the ideals the civil rights activists marched, fought, and died for had come true.
The following Monday, Nichols again talked to Gene Roddenberry and asked for her job back. After hearing about her encounter with Dr. King, Roddenberry handed back her resignation letter, already torn into little pieces, and they went on to further go where no show had gone before.
The next season, Nichelle Nichols again made television history, this time with William Shatner. They portrayed the first onscreen interracial romantic kiss, albeit under slight duress because they were under the psychic control of an alien race called the Platonians:
Here is a play-by-play of the scene from Nichols:
Nichols could have stopped there, but she did not. After her stint on the Enterprise finally came to an end, she became an active volunteer for NASA, recruiting minority and female space personnel. The astronauts she brought to the agency include Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African American astronaut, and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut.
Nichelle Nichols is more than a pretty face; she is a trailblazer and tireless nerd advocate. You can keep up with the latest Nichelle Nichols news on Twitter @RealNichelle.