Nichelle Nichols, who famously played Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” credits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for persuading her to stay on the TV show.
At a television press tour panel for the second season of PBS’s “Pioneers of Television” series, which will air in 2011, Nichols shared that she had wanted to leave the show after the first season. Not because she didn’t like Gene Roddenberry’s visionary show, but because her heart belonged to Broadway: “I took ‘Star Trek’ because I thought it might be a nice adjunct to my resume and I’d get to Broadway faster. … I thought it was going nowhere for me.”
But then Nichols met King at a NAACP dinner, where he was introduced as her “biggest fan.” King urged her to continue her role. “He said what Gene Roddenberry had done was to establish who we were in the 23rd century,” she said. Nichols’ role as Uhura, first a bridge officer and later promoted to lieutenant, was one of the first non-servant roles played by an African-American woman on TV.
King told Nichols that not only was he an admirer of Roddenberry’s groundbreaking show, but it was the only show he and his wife would allow their three young children to watch. And more important, it was helping to change the world. Nichols says he told her: “You are part of history, and it’s your responsibility, even though it wasn’t your career choice.”
After taking King’s advice and staying on the show, Nichols was part of another TV first. On the Nov. 22, 1968, episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Nichols’ Lt. Uhura famously kissed Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. It was the first interracial kiss to be shown on a scripted TV show in the U.S.
The kiss had both fans and critics. In Nichols’ 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: ‘Star Trek’ and Other Memories,” she quotes from a letter she says she got from a white Southern man, who wrote: “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”
Other notable people who’ve called Nichols a role model include NASA’s Dr. Mae Jemison, who credits Nichols with inspiring her to become an astronaut, and Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“Star Trek” holds a place in history as a progressive influence on the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Roddenberry has long been credited with creating one of the first mainstream TV shows that envisioned a diverse world where all people were treated as equals.