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How Martin Luther King Jr convinced Nichelle Nichols not to quit as Star Trek’s Uhura

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ has died in New Mexico at the age of 89, and what a life she lived.

Update:
Fallece Nichelle Nichols, Uhura en 'Star Trek', a los 89 años.
CHRIS DELMASGetty

On Sunday the news broke that Nichelle Nichols, who famously played the communications officer Uhura in the original TV show Star Trek, had passed away at the age of 89. The actress died on Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico, with the initial reports being confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner for 15 years.

Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, leading to a guardianship dispute between her manager Bell and his son, as well as a friend. Nichols had been married and divorced twice and is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.

Tributes flooded in, including this one from co-star George Takei who played Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the fictional starship USS Enterprise.

Nichelle Nichols and her role in American history

Nichols was no ordinary television star. She played a part of some pivotal moments in the US entertainment industry including the actress sharing one of the first interracial kisses in TV history with her Star Trek co-star William Shatner, aka Captain Kirk.

However, her character as Uhura, whose name comes from a Swahili word meaning “freedom”, was hugely influential beyond that, as she was one of the first African-American women to appear in a non-supporting role on television. Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series, but also in Star Trek: The Animated Series and in the first six Star Trek films.

One powerful story that will live on revolves around when she considered leaving the Star Trek franchise after just the first season to pursue a career on Broadway, but Martin Luther King Jr, who understood the importance of her character in opening doors for other African-Americans on television and in society, personally convinced her to stay on the show.

“He complimented me on the manner in which I’d created the character,” the actress explained to NPR back in 2011. “I thanked him, and I think I said something like, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.’ He said, ‘no, no, no. No, you don’t understand ... You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.’

“I said, ‘Well, I told Gene [Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry] just yesterday that I’m going to leave the show after the first year because I’ve been offered...’ — and he stopped me and said: ‘You cannot do that.’ And I was stunned.

“He said, ‘Don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.’ He says, ‘Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?’ I was speechless.’”

And the rest, as they say, is history...

NASA asks ‘Uhura’ for help

Following her stardom in the hugely successful sci-fi series, space exploration in a more real sense was still to come. NASA employed Nichols in an effort to encourage women and African-Americans to take more interest in the field and even to become astronauts.

NASA’s Astronaut Group 8, selected in 1978, included the first women and ethnic minorities to be recruited, including three who were black. In fact, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to fly aboard the space shuttle, cited Star Trek as an influence on her decision to join the space agency.

But Nichols didn’t stop there in her history-making efforts and in 1991 she became the first African-American woman to have her handprints immortalized at the TCL Chinese Theatre.

RIP Nichelle Nichols as you continue to boldly go where no woman has gone before...

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