Nichelle Nichols began her stint with show business as a singer and dancer singing with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton and touring the world. However, when buddy Gene Roddenberry offered her a role in the popular sci-fi television show “Star Trek” in the 1960s, it marked a critical point in her career and life.
She played the role of Lt. Nyota Uhura, a black woman tasked with responsibilities of a bridge crew officer. In the TV landscape of America’s 1960s, her role was unheard of and although it lacked depth, Nichols’ performance inspired a generation.
However, with Nichols still having an eye on music and Broadway despite being the first African-American woman to play a lead role on television, she informed producers of the show she was set to leave. But all that changed with a meeting with Baptist minister and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.
So it was that Nichols, the Communication Officer, Lieutenant Uhura was told one evening she had a fan who loved to meet her.
“‘I am the biggest Trekkie on the planet, and I am lieutenant Uhura’s most ardent fan,’” Nichols recalled King saying to her. “I didn’t even know how to say thank you,” Nichols, who, days before, had given notice to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry that she planned to leave the show, added.
When she told King, she planned on leaving the show; he submitted a superior argument why she had to stay on.
“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 from 1966 until the series ended in 1969.
After the original Star Trek 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 remarked.
According to Todd Thompson, a producer/director of a documentary on her life, “she’s the reason there are men, women, African Americans and Asians in the space program. Before that, NASA only recruited white males from the United States Air Force who hoped to get a shot at traveling to the moon.”
Her involvement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came after setting up the organization called Women in Motion in the 1970s.
Thompson holds that Women in Motion was really one of the first STEM organizations as Nichols wanted to inspire women, especially minority women to join the space program adding, “she did outreach to schools and worked with the Smithsonian to enhance the effort to bring science and technology to kids.” Nichols has star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.