Star Trek is perhaps the most iconic franchise to come out of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. remains the figurehead of the civil rights movement, the most transformational movement of the decade. Although King was at his most influential during Start Trek’s early years, people often don’t associate him with the show.
And yet, he was a huge fan of Star Trek. He was undoubtedly the most important Trekkie who ever lived. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, recalled meeting King and discussing the show with him.
How Martin Luther King Jr. changed ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’
Star Trek: The Original Series offered a very hopeful and inclusive version of the future. On the Starship Enterprise, characters who were black, white, and East Asian were able to get along and work together harmoniously. At the time, the series was revolutionary.
After Star Trek’s first season aired, Nichols considered leaving the show. She received an offer to act on Broadway and was weighing her options. Then, at a fundraiser, someone told Nichols that a Star Trek fan wanted to meet her. The fan was none other than King himself.
According to The Washington Post, Nichols recalled “This man says, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best, greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans. As a matter of fact, this is the only show that my wife Corretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up late to watch because it’s past their bedtime.'” Nichols recalled King was a fan of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry for the way the show portrayed Uhura, a black woman.
In addition, Nichols remembered King saying “’’Don’t you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time on television, [black people] will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don’t see it on television until now.'” King encouraged Nichols to continue acting on the show and Nichols took his advice. To this day, many science fiction fans see Uhura’s characterization as ground-breaking.
How Nichelle Nichols knew she made the right decision
Uhura’s presence on the show certainly meant a lot to Whoopi Goldberg. According to The Huffington Post, Goldberg saw Uhura on the show and said “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!” Goldberg would later have a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation as Guinan.
NPR reports Goldberg later told Nichols about how she felt when she first saw Uhura on television. Goldberg’s anecdote moved Nichols very much. After hearing it, she knew she had made the right decision by listening to King.