Star Trek: How Martin Luther King Jr. Saved Uhura

Actress Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, but she would have left if not for Martin Luther King Jr.

Uhura Nichelle Nichols and MLK

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. felt Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura was so important that he personally intervened to prevent actress Nichelle Nichols leaving the show. It's hard to imagine how ground-breaking the character of Lieutenant Uhura really was in social terms. This was the height of the civil rights movement when The Original Series was on the air, with the battle for racial equality raging across the United States. Just a year earlier, Malcolm X had been assassinated, after all.

And then, in 1966, viewers began to tune in to a science-fiction TV series called Star Trek, a show that featured a black woman in a supporting role. What's more, Nichols' character got to share the first ever inter-racial kiss on American television. But Nichols herself wasn't all that focused on Star Trek; she planned to quit after the first season since she was more interested in a Broadway career. She received an offer and went so far as to tell Gene Roddenberry of her plans. He was devastated but asked Nichols to take a to think it over. The very next day, she met Martin Luther King Jr.

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Nichols was attending a fundraiser at the NAACP, and she was told there was a big fan who wanted to meet her. To her surprise, she turned round and found herself faced with Martin Luther King Jr. As she explained in a TV Academy interview, Dr. King told her that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife Corretta would allow their three children to stay up and watch. King fully understood the cultural significance of Star Trek, and he believed Roddenberry's series was truly shaping the future. He viewed the character of Uhura as one with a tremendous amount of dignity. Because of Martin Luther King Jr.'s comments, Nichols' chose to remain on the series.

Nichols recalled that she told Martin Luther King Jr. she wished she could be on the marches with him, but he waved away the comment. "No, no, no," Nichols remembered him saying, "No, you don't understand. We don't need you to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for." In the face of such praise, Nichols had no choice but to tell him the truth - that she was planning to leave Star Trek. His response astounded her.

"He said, 'Don't you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don't see it on television until now.'"

Martin Luther King Jr. believed that Roddenberry had opened a door for black Americans, but he feared that this door could be closed If Nichols left, she would be replaced - and it could be by anybody, even an alien. Nichols' world was turned on its head, as she suddenly realized the importance of Star Trek, and the power she had to help change the world. A few days later, she spoke to Gene Roddenberry and told him she had decided to stay. She also told him what King had said, and she recalled Roddenberry's response. "God bless Dr. Martin Luther King," he declared. "Somebody knows where I'm coming from."

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