Today we honor and celebrate a woman who has made her mark on television, space travel, and equal rights, Nichelle Nichols. Best known for her role as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series, Nichols has parlayed that initial cult status and eventual superstardom into a platform for making the world a better place for everyone–a true champion for social justice. She started her career in the brief lifespan of Oscar Brown, Jr.‘s civil rights musical Kicks & Co. Although the stage was her first love, she accepted an early television role from Gene Roddenberry. When he was casting Star Trek, he insisted on adding her to the cast as the communications officer.
As an equal officer on the command deck, Uhura was unprecedented: an African-American lead character who was not a servant. Nevertheless, feeling that the character was not as fully developed as her peers, Nichols planned to leave after the first season to return to Broadway. As she later recounted, she was encouraged to remain at the program when a fan of the show approached her at an NAACP function where she was speaking. That fan was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When she told him of her plans, he replied,
STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television…Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it.
Remaining on the series, she went on to be part of the first-ever scripted mixed-race kiss on television when Uhura and Captain Kirk were forced to kiss by telekinetic aliens. After the series was cancelled, she realized she had been bitten by the space bug. Along with her continued support of the NAACP, Nichols reached out to NASA. She participated in a number of their civilian programs and became a spokesman for the agency. She had started a company to further women’s rights, Women In Motion, and agreed to use that company to help recruit women and people of color to NASA. Her efforts were very successful, helping bring in such luminaries as Sally Ride and Charles Bolden, the first permanent African-American NASA Director.
Nichelle Nichols has gone on to act in all the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast, eventually seeing Uhura promoted to Commander. She has acted on Broadway and in other movies and television. Not content to be famous as an actor, however, she has made an important mark on the world stage, boldly going where no African-American television actress had gone before.