How Martin Luther King Jr. Helped Keep The ‘Star Trek’ Crew Together

“I thought [Uhura] was a glorified telephone operator in space.” —Nichelle Nichols, talking about her “Star Trek” character

In A Nutshell

After the first season of Star Trek, actress Nichelle Nichols was thinking about leaving the show. Fortunately, Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her into staying aboard the Starship Enterprise. Why? Well, King thought Nichols was a civil rights hero, and thanks to his little talk, she would go on to help revolutionize television, as well as NASA.

The Whole Bushel

While its gender politics are dated, the 1960s Star Trek series was a pretty revolutionary TV show when it came to race issues. The USS Enterprise featured a multi-ethnic crew that included an Asian helmsman (played by George Takei, a Japanese-American) and a Russian navigator (played by Walter Koenig, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants).

And then, of course, there was Lt. Uhura, the black communication officer played by Nichelle Nichols.

According to PBS, Nichols was the first African-American woman to play a lead role on television. But before she boldly went where no woman had gone before, Nichols was making her way through show business as a singer.

She was performing in Chicago nightclubs at age 14, and soon she was singing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. She also did a little stage work before winding up alongside William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

But after one season of starring as Uhura, Nichols decided it was time to move on. She had her eyes set on Broadway.

That all changed, however, when Nichols was invited to an NAACP fundraiser. That evening, she learned her biggest fan wanted to meet with her. As it turned out, the fan was none other than Martin Luther King Jr.

The civil rights leader described himself as “the biggest Trekkie on the planet,” and Star Trek was supposedly the only show he would let his kids stay up late to watch. During their meeting, King told Nichols that he was “Uhura’s most ardent fan,” but he also had a little sermon ready for the young actress.

King explained how Uhura was more than just a silly character on a sci-fi show. She was “the first important non-traditional . . . non-stereotypical role.” According to King, God had given Nichelle Nichols a chance to become a “symbol” for all African-Americans.

She was a lieutenant, visiting distant worlds and solving interstellar problems, right alongside a white crew. They were all equals on the Enterprise, and Uhura was just as important as Scotty, Chekhov, or McCoy.

Article Continued Below

Thanks to this character, Nichols had become a champion for civil rights. “You cannot abdicate your position,” King explained. “You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.”

Inspired, Nichols decided to stay on the show, remaining until it was canceled in 1969.

But even though she was no longer a communications officer, that didn’t mean Nichols was done changing the world. A few years after Star Trek, Nichols gave a speech where she lambasted NASA for its lack of diversity. Taking the hint, the agency actually asked Nichelle to help recruit women and minorities as astronauts.

The actress took on the challenge, and she personally recruited Sally Ride (the first American woman in space) as well as Major General Charles Bolden (NASA’s current administrator).

In late 2015, Nicholas made headlines yet again. Getting a little bit closer to the final frontier, Nichols became one of the first “non-essential” people to ever fly in NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Basically, SOFIA is a juiced-up Boeing 747, loaded down with a 17-ton telescope. The craft flies up to the very edge of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing researchers to observe and analyze constellations and distant protostars.

When Nichols made this historic trip, she was 83 years old.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Washington Post: How Martin Luther King Jr. convinced ‘Star Trek’s’ Lt. Uhura to stay on the show
CNN: Star Trek legend who became NASA’s ‘secret weapon’
“Satirical Flop Brings Star Success,” Ebony 1962

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!