It’s easy to dismiss the contributions of an actor in the company of pharaohs and spies and Nobel Prize winners, but one should not do so with Nichelle Nichols. Her role as Uhura was so important, so seminal. She was a major character on a prime time show. She was a bridge officer and she was a woman and she was black. All of these things were radical at the time, and, as the research of the Geena Davis Institute shows, they are, sadly, still things we struggle with today.
And this was no easy feat for Nichols. She wasn’t just another actor. She faced galling discrimination every time she set foot on set. She had to enter by a different gate to the other actors, was paid less, and often faced bigotry directly from studio staff. The famous inter-racial kiss between Uhura and Kirk was nearly prevented because the director for the episode was against it.
Eventually, Nichols decided to leave, as a direct response to the discrimination she faced. Gene Roddenberry asked her to think about it over the weekend, a weekend in which she was attending a fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Whilst at the fundraiser, Nichols had a life-changing conversation with Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr King told her he was a fan, and that Star Trek was one of the few programmes he would let his children stay up to watch. When she told him she was leaving, he begged her not to. He said:
You can’t do that. Don’t you understand that for the first time we are seen as we should be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.
– Martin Luther King Jr
Where before black roles were limited to those of maids and servants, Uhura was fourth in command of a space ship. Nichelle went back to Gene and told him she would be staying.
And Dr King was right. Nichelle inspired a whole generation. Whoopi Goldberg cites seeing Uhura in Star Trek as inspiring her to think that black people had a future; seeing a black woman in space, and not as a maid, made her feel she could be anything she wanted to be. This was the tale she told when she asked Gene Roddenberry for a part on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And beyond her work on Star Trek, Nichols went on to become a recruiter for NASA, specifically working to recruit women and people from minority groups. Those recruited included Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.
She is on the board of directors for the National Space Society, and she even flew on board NASA’s C-141 Astronomy Observatory on a high-altitude mission studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus.
This truly remarkable woman withstood personal abuse to become a beacon for all of us. Showing what women could be, and showing what women of colour could be, too.