It was a moment that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Actress Nichelle Nichols, who was the first African-American woman to play a lead role on television — Communication Officer Lieutenant Uhura on the popular sci-fi television show “Star Trek” — was told one evening that a fan would like to meet her. Assuming she’d face another die-hard Trekkie, Nichols turned to see Martin Luther King, Jr.
“‘I am the biggest Trekkie on the planet, and I am lieutenant Uhura’s most ardent fan,’” Nichols recalls King saying to her. “I didn’t even know how to say thank you,” says Nichols, who, days before, had given notice to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry that she planned to leave the show. Nichols, who had cut her professional teeth singing and dancing, had her eyes fixed on a Broadway role. When King discovered Nichols’s plans, he was shaken and encouraged her to remain on the groundbreaking series.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Gives a Pep Talk
“Do you not understand what God has given you? … You have the first important non-traditional role, non-stereotypical role. … You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.” Nichols remembers King saying to her.
The pep talk worked, and Nichols remained in her pivotal role until the series ended in 1969. While “Star Trek” may be Nichols most memorable role, she is a skilled songstress and dancer who toured with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. Following the end of the original series, Nichols assisted NASA in recruiting females and minorities to its ranks, including the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride. “I think it’s been one of the most remarkable things in my career … that this one character that was a gift to me … became this iconic image and inspired and impacted so many people’s lives in positive ways,” she says.