Nichelle Nichols was best known for playing Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek” during the original NBC television show from 1966-1969 and the show’s Paramount films from the late seventies to 1991. She died of natural causes on Saturday, July 30, 2022.
William Shatner, who starred in the leading role as Captain James T. Kirk alongside Nichols, said this about the late actress: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family.”
She was indeed one of the brightest lights of television and science fiction, one of the most powerful symbols of African American achievement and hope, and one of the greatest recruiters of women and minorities into American science and spaceflight. She was a strong Black woman who showed the world a future with Black men and women being treated as integral parts of humanity’s future and not just background players.
Nichols’ Uhura, a fictional African communications officer on the bridge of a futuristic starship soaring through the galaxy on the original three-year run of “Star Trek” and its subsequent first series of movies, made real-life boys and girls, men and women feel like their horizons were unlimited, as well. It was living, breathing Afrofuturism. And Nichols made it glorious.
In 1967, when she told the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser that she had told “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry that she would leave the show, King stunned her with his objection. “‘You cannot do that,’” Nichols later quoted King as saying. “He said: ‘Don’t you understand…? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.’” King also said “Star Trek” was the only tv show he allowed his children to watch.
There was a time when Black characters on television were servants or slaves, pimps or prostitutes or mere background characters to white stories, there to help white main characters discover something about themselves; “the Black best friend,” who comforts and pushes the white main character in his or her journey; the “domestic or mammy,” who serves those white characters; or the thug; or the angry, or sassy, Black woman. Uhura, a beautiful Black woman working alongside Capt. James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock and other members of the crew of the famous USS Enterprise, was none of these.
In a 1968 episode of “Star Trek” called “Plato’s Stepchildren,” humanlike aliens dressed as ancient Greeks torture the crew of the Enterprise and force Shatner’s Capt. Kirk to lock lips with Uhura. That kiss, the first kiss on American television between a Black woman and a white man, in a world still riddled with racist and sexist attitudes, foretold the coming acceptance of interracial relationships in a U.S., but it probably wouldn’t have happened if not for a bit of subversiveness from Nichols and Shatner.
Worried about the reaction from Southern television stations, showrunners had filmed the kiss between Shatner and Nichols with their lips mostly obscured by the back of Nichols’ head, but they wanted to play it even safer and film a second scene in which the kiss happens off-screen.
But in her book “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” Nichols said she and Shatner deliberately flubbed their lines, leaving the show with no choice but to use the original take.
Nichols spent her time after “Star Trek’s” original television run recruiting women and minorities for NASA. In just a few months, she brought in over 8,000 applicants, 1,600 of whom were women and 1,000 of whom were people of color, a significantly more diverse pool of applicants than NASA had seen before.
Mae Jemison’s excitement over Uhura preceded her career in science. “I very much liked Uhura and she was a very important person to me,” she said. Jemison became the first African American woman in space, aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992.
Whoopi Goldberg played the role of Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation and recently reprised the character in the revival series Star Trek: Picard. The daytime TV host has always credited Nichols as her inspiration for getting into acting.
“A trailblazer, a heroine, and an extraordinary woman—someone who inspired millions and millions of people but inspired me,” Goldberg said of Nichols on The View on Monday. “Nichelle was the first Black person I’d ever seen who made it to the future.” Goldberg went on to say that Nichols was “the one beacon that said, ‘Yes, we’ll be there.’”
“Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation,” said Lynda Carter. “Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
Celebrate the life and work of Nichelle Nichols along with other Star Trek fans at the upcoming Way Late Play Date: Boldly Go Beyond at Nashville’s Adventure Science Center. The adults-only (21+) event runs from 7:00 – 10:00 pm on Friday, August 12. Get details and tickets at: www.adventuresci.org/explore/way-late-play-date-star-trek/