Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the TV show 'Star Trek' in the 1960s, passed away July 30, 2022, at the age of 89. But her role as Lt. Uhura will forever remain a part of pop culture history. Why? Because it had immense cultural significance as it was the first role portraying a Black woman as something other than a trite stereotype.
Uhura, whose name was based on the Swahili word for freedom, uhuru, was an important character on the starship Enterprise. Show creator Gene Roddenberry was determined to create a multiracial cast, something rare at that time in American television.
At first, Nichols' portrayal of the Lt. Uhura was almost short-lived. Her background was in theater as she had performed in a Broadway satire about Hugh Hefner and Playboy titled "Kicks & Co." that helped launch her career. After the first season of "Star Trek," she was approached with the opportunity to return to the stage and decided to take it. But fate had other plans.
Roddenberry was upset to see her go and asked her to take the weekend to mull over her decision. During that time, she went to an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills when she was approached by the most unlikely Trekkie: Martin Luther King Jr. Here's how she recalled the meeting in 2011 to NPR:
King informed her that "Star Trek" was the only show he allowed his kids to stay up and watch and that not only was he a fan, he was deeply moved by what Nichols represented. America was in one of its most divisive eras ever, and King found it to be of utmost importance that Nichols continue to set a positive example of an African-American woman in a position of leadership on TV.
Nichols detailed her feelings after the conversation for a Reddit AMA in 2015:
Nichols' continued presence on the show cemented Lt. Uhura as a cultural icon in science fiction and American pop culture. If not for King's insistence and Nichols' changing her mind, we may never have gotten one of the most important scenes in TV history.
In "Star Trek's" third and final season, NBC aired the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" Nov. 22, 1968, seven months after King was assassinated. The episode was groundbreaking because it featured the first interracial kiss (between William Shatner's Capt. Kirk and Nichol's Lt. Uhura) ever seen on U.S. television.
The legendary moment continued to fulfill Dr. King's dreams for Nichols and her character. King knew back in the show's first season that Nichols had the ability to continue to break barriers and redefine beliefs about Black women in America. Her kiss with Shatner was further validation of King's hopes that she could show America that people can love one another despite any racial differences. Live long and prosper Lt. Uhura.
Originally Published: Jan 13, 2017