Tributes are still pouring in for actress, dancer and singer Nichelle Nichols, who passed away Saturday at age 89. Nichols began her stint in 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 the responsibilities of a bridge crew officer. In the TV landscape of America’s 1960s, her role was unheard of. It was one of the first times that a Black woman appeared on television in a leading role. Her performance inspired a generation. She would go on to share the first interracial kiss that changed the course of history in the U.S.
This was in November of 1968, while she was playing the intelligent Uhura, and William Shatner, a white man, was playing commanding Captain Kirk. Nichols and Shatner locked lips on-screen in Star Trek in a never-before-seen action in a country’s history.
The screen “romance” would be hailed as a barrier-breaking and even rebellious act in 1960s America. It had been only a year since the Supreme Court had said it was legal for couples of different races to get married. The kiss was not even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek. But the earlier kiss between Filipino-American BarBara Luna and Shatner was not considered culturally significant or topical.
Nichols may not have made history or pushed social and political boundaries had it not been for civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. She wanted to quit Star Trek to go sing on Broadway but King told her to stay after the two had met at an NAACP fundraiser in California. In one of her interviews, Nichols said King had told her how important her character was to civil rights.
“[MLK] said, ‘You can’t [quit]. Don’t you know who you are to our movement, to everyone? You are there in the 23rd century. You’ve created a role that has such dignity and everything — it’s so powerful. You cannot leave,’” Nichols recalled in a 2011 interview. “Then he told me many other things, like, ‘This is one of his only shows that Coretta and I allow our children to stay up and watch.’ So I went back Monday morning and told [“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry], and he said, ‘God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody sees what I’m trying to achieve.’”
King had also said to her: “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you changed the face of television forever…For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.”
Nichols went on to use her fame from Star Trek to do ambassadorial work for America’s space office, NASA. She helped recruit people of diverse backgrounds for NASA programs.
On Saturday, the family of the groundbreaking Star Trek star said she died of natural causes.
“Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all,” her son, Kyle Johnson, posted on Nichols’ official Facebook page.
Nichols’ “Star Trek” costar George Takei tweeted, “my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”