Star Trek (the Original Series) has a special place in TV science-fiction history in that it had the first inter-racial spaceship crew in primetime (Rodenberry had a hell of a time selling it to NBC, so he tricked them when he sold them the original pilot).
Nichelle Nichols was the first African-American female to have a role on a prime-time TV show where she wasn’t required to be a nurse or maid (although the nursing profession has made it up the economic food chain recently) in subordination to a white widower. Her role as Lt. Uhura on the Enterprise bridge crew was not only proof that African-Americans can have leadership roles on TV, but women as well.
What isn’t widely known is that Nichols wanted to quit the show after one season and that one person in particular talked her out of it.
Martin Luther King Jr.
I, after the first season, because my heart was still on Broadway and the performing arts part of me, the musical performing arts of me was yearning to leave. I never intended to be an actress other than in the theater. So for me, TV and movies, that was something to help me get from here to there. And so it was a shock for me to be cast in Star Trek . A shock and a joy. I was performing in England at the time of the inception of the show and my agent tracked me down in Paris and told me that they were doing a show called Star Trek, assuming that I’d know what that was. Because I’d been in and out of the country for so long.Now I’d known Gene Rodenberry since he’d given me my first TV starring role in a show that he’d done called the ‘The Lieutenant’. And he was one of the first people of that stature that gave me encouragement. He called my agent and said can you find Nichelle, because I need her for a role in this show and wherever she is, get her back here because I want a woman head of a department on the bridge. He changed the role from a man heading communications on the bridge and he wanted a woman of color. He wanted me and I came back and got the role. So the first year went by, and I enjoyed doing the role, to me at that time it was very challenging [laughs] but I played my role to the hilt, being the head of communications and all that and by this time the show had aired and I was starting to get notice and on the side I’m singing at places and people are hearing me and calling and I’m thinking, “Oh this is my big break! I have to leave this little show and go do it! I was thinking Broadway here I come!’
And so I went on a Friday evening shortly before the end of the season to let Gene know that I wouldn’t be returning to the show, he looked at me like I was crazy, “YOU CAN’T LEAVE,” but he realized how serious I was and he knew I was passionate about singing, and he said, “I know what your dream is and so forth but don’t you see what I’m trying to do? He said take the weekend and think about my decision and how important this show is and how it was a first and if I leave, well he didn’t know what to say, but he said take the weekend and that way I could take the time to really think about what we just said and come back Monday and we would talk about it and if you really want to leave then, you’ll go with my blessings, but realize I want you to know that what we are doing here is really historic. The next night was Saturday and I was due to be a celebrity guest on a dais at an NAACP fundraiser at UCLA.
One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s you’re best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!” and I… I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.
I just couldn’t say a thing and he began to tell me how important my role was, what an inspiration it was. And you have to understand we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, people were regularly being attacked by dogs, and marchers were being hosed on the television every night, real life things, and here I am in this futuristic thing on TV and he was so complimentary, he told me “I was so important and the way you have created this role,” and I am just looking at him and looking at him and I remember I just kept hoping he’d never stop talking. Because his voice is just… you know the voice. And I finally just start saying, thank you so much Dr. King and I am shaking his hand and still shaking from nervousness and I said thank you so much and I am really going to miss my co-stars.
And at this his face totally changed, and he said “What are you talking about?!” and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!” And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, “Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!
As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”
And I did not leave.
I like these little gems from the sci-fi world, especially little unknowns like this one about icons of TV history like Nichelle Nichols. People don’t realize how hard it was (and still is in some aspects) for certain Americans to climb the economic ladder because of stupid prejudice.
And of course, King was in a class all his own too.
But you have to be a martyr to be in it.