In 1969, on the third season of the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk and USS Enterprise chief communication officer Uhura shared what's been marked as the first interracial kiss on television. It wouldn't have happened if the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura hadn't met Martin Luther King, Jr. two years earlier, when he convinced her not to leave the show.
Last night, I fell down an Internet rabbit hole and discovered “Saucerkommand," a Tumblr page dedicated to "Afrofuturism," a mix of science-fiction, history and appreciation of African culture. There I found a cool animated video of a conversation between acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nichelle Nichols, the actress known best for her role as Uhura in the Star Trek series.
In the interview, Nichols retells the story of meeting "her greatest fan" for the first time, soon after the first season of Star Trek aired. The year was likely 1967. At the time, she was contemplating leaving the show, but then, at a NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills, a man with a big smile approached her and said, "Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan."
That man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nichols says that Dr. King was adamant about the importance of the role she played in society. "You have one of the most important roles, this is a first," Nichols said, quoting Dr. King. "It's non-stereotypical, it's brilliant, it's beauty and it's intelligence."
After King's spiel, she broke the news to him, "Dr. King, thank you so much. I'm going to miss co-stars."
Dr. King wasn't having it, "You can not leave, do you understand? It has been heavenly ordained!"
The Reverend continued to convince her that her fictional role as the chief communication officer on a spaceship from the 23rd century was tremendously significant. "You have changed the face of television forever," Dr. King continued. He wanted her to know that simply portraying the role of leadership in popular media was revolutionary, especially in the face of all that was taking place in the fight for Civil Rights.
The Black community hadn't been portrayed in television's concept of the future until Nichols. King told her that, "We are there, because you are there." Her character's name symbolized the thought of a better future, as Uhura is derived from the Swahili word for freedom.
Dr. King then half-jokingly said, "Star Trek is the only show that my wife Coretta and I allow our little children to stay up late and watch; and Nichelle, I can't go back and tell them this, because you are their hero."
Nichols says that she told the story to Star Trek writer Gene Roddenberry. Upon hearing about the discussion, Roddenberry opened his desk drawer, and took out Nichols' letter of resignation— which had been torn to shreds because Roddenberry wasn't going to accept it. He then said to Nichols, "God bless, Dr. Martin Luther King, someone realizes what I'm trying to achieve."
"I write about the future (Associate Producer at @ThisIsFusion).
I write about the past (publisher of #OGToldMe).
Oakland, CA raised me."