MLK was A Trekkie? See Martin Luther King’s Surprising Role in Saving ‘Star Trek’
When the late Gene Roddenberry cast Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, he was following his vision of an egalitarian future. He also gained a fan: Martin Luther King, Jr. At one point, the latter helped Star Trek keep its egalitarian vision.
Nichols, who had always aspired to go on Broadway, planned to leave the show. King, however, talked her into staying. While this story is fairly well-known, Nichols believed that some of the details had gotten muddled over time. In response to a Reddit reader’s questions, she decided to clear things up.
According to Nichols, King had pointed out that Star Trek had black fans who identified with her character. At the time, Nichols’ Lt. Uhura, the communications officer on the Enterprise, was one of the few female black characters on a major T.V. show who wasn’t a stereotypical maid or nanny. As such, Uhura was a symbol of possibilities and a better future for many black people. King saw that, and explained that such a vision could only last if Nichols stayed on the show. If she left, her character might be replaced by a white person.
Another Reddit reader then asked Nichols if there was any truth to the story about Roddenberry’s reaction to King’s talk with Nichols. As per the story, Roddenberry had said something like, “Finally, someone gets it.” Nichols confirmed that had also happened.
One of the fans inspired by Uhura was Whoopi Goldberg, who would eventually play the character Guinan on Star Trek: Next Generation. Goldberg first saw the original series when she was nine years old. Upon seeing Uhura, she ran through the house screaming, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Goldberg added that Uhura’s character convinced her she could be anything she wanted.
Mae Jemison was also a fan of Star Trek and Uhura. The Chicago native eventually became the first African-American woman to go into space. She also became the principal of the “100 Year Star Ship” program which will work to develop interstellar travel within the next 100 years.
Not only did Nichols play one of the first non-servant roles given to a black actress, she also made television history when she and William Shatner exchanged the first interracial kiss. After Star Trek, Nichols began working with NASA to recruit women and minorities into the space program.