How Dr. Martin Luther King shaped both Star Trek and actual space travel
We almost lost Uhura forever after the first season of Star Trek — then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped in and changed more than he ever could have imagined.
“I was offered a role on Broadway,” explained Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, “I was a singer on stage long before I was an actress, and Broadway was always a dream to me. I was ready to leave Star Trek and pursue what I’d always wanted to do.”
Nichols even told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that she would not be returning. Then, at an NAACP meeting in Beverly Hills, one of the promoters approached Nichols to tell her that a fan wanted to meet her. As Nichols explained in an interview on NPR, “I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.”
Dr. King continued, “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.” This hit home for Nichols, who rushed back to Roddenberry to tell him she had changed her mind about leaving the show. Nichols was eagerly welcomed back and continued to portray Lieutenant Uhura for the entire run of the series, as well as reprising her roles in several Star Trek movies.
However, the story doesn’t end there.
At a Star Trek convention in the ’80s, Nichols met a young Black woman named Mae Jemison. This fan excitedly explained how Uhura had inspired her to travel to space as a little girl and how she was currently in the process of becoming a real astronaut.
In 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first Black woman to travel in space. While on this mission, Dr. Jemison would begin each shift by telling Mission Control, “Hailing frequencies are open” just as Uhura did on The Original Series.
When LeVar Burton discovered this, he immediately invited Jemison to appear on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that he was directing. Jemison jumped at the opportunity. During The Next Generation’s 6th season, she appears in “Second Chances” as transporter operator Lieutenant Palmer, making Jemison the first person ever both go to space and the Starship Enterprise.
Dr. Jemison went on to co-found the 100 Year Starship, a non-profit whose mission is “to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years…We believe that pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will build a better world today.”
From just one conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King and actress Nichelle Nichols in the ’60s, a series of events were put in motion that crucially shaped both Star Trek and actual space travel for the next half a century and, hopefully, beyond.
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