The Current Situation The Good Fight

Never forget what MLK did for “Star Trek”

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV series.
Public domain photo by NASA.

After the original Star Trek TV series’ first season in 1966, Nichelle Nichols — a.k.a. Lt. Uhura, Communications Officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise — considered leaving the show. She considered the stage to be her true home, and she’d received an offer to act on Broadway. She’d even told the series creator Gene Roddenberry that she planned to leave.

She would’ve left, had it not been for a fan who’d showed up at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills to meet her. At the fundraiser, Nichols was informed that there was a fan who really wanted to meet her. Here’s the story, in her words:

“I’m looking for a young man who’s a ‘Star Trek’ fan. So I turn and instead of a fan there’s this face the world knows, with this beautiful smile on it.”

That fan is pictured below:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a break at the podium.
Public domain photo by Marion S. Trikosko, 1964. Source: Library of Congress.

“This man says, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best, greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans. As a matter of fact, this is the only show that my wife Corretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up late to watch because it’s past their bedtime.’”

She told King that she wished she could be marching alongside him, but he said she was already doing that, in her own way:

“He said, ‘No, no, no. No, you don’t understand. We don’t need you to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.’”

She told him that she was leaving Star Trek, and he pleaded with her to stay on the show:

“He said, ‘Don’t you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don’t see it on television until now.’”

She changed her mind and stayed on the show for the rest of the series, and went on to help recruit women and minorities for NASA.

Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan

She also inspired another Star Trek actor: Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Goldberg has often told the story about how the Uhura character inspired her when she first saw her on TV — she ran shouting throughout the house, shouting:

“Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”

Thanks to MLK, we have Lt. Commander Nyota Uhura (she got a first name in the novels, which finally made it to the screen in the 2009 Star Trek film, where Zoe Saldana played Uhura), and the continuation of Star Trek’s breaking new ground in representation, which is happening even today.

I’ll close with this interview with Nichelle Nichols, where she tells the story of how Dr. King convinced her to stay on the show:

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