What Martin Luther King Jr. Taught Star Trek Actress Nichelle Nichols About Representation

Nichelle Nichols was on the verge of quitting her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the cult Star Trek series when one of the most unlikely characters, Martin Luther King Jr., convinced her not to.
In a 2011 interview with US National Public Radio (NPR), the star admitted that her first love was musical theater.
“I grew up in musical theatre. For me, the highlight and embodiment of my life as a singer, actor and dancer/choreographer was to perform on Broadway,” said Nichols, who died Saturday at age 89 in Silver City, New Mexico.
According to the 2010 documentary Trek Nation, in the middle of the TV program’s first season in 1966-67, Nichols told Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry about her decision to leave.
“I came to tell Gene Roddenberry I was leaving after the first season and he was very upset about it,” Nichols, who was one of the first black women to play a key role on a major TV show, told NPR. .
“And he said, take a weekend and think about what I’m trying to achieve here on this show. You are an integral part and very important to him. And so I said, yes, I would.”
That same weekend, Nichols ran into Mr. King at a fundraiser, and the chance encounter changed the course of her life and the history of pop culture.

“I went to an NAACP fundraiser Saturday night, I think it was in Beverly Hills,” Nichols said.

Come quickly, come quickly. There’s a black lady on TV, and she’s not a maid.

Whoopi Goldberg

“And one of the promoters came up to me and said, ‘Miss Nichols, there is someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your biggest fan.
“And I think about Trekker, you know.
“And I turned, and before I could get up, I looked across the road and saw the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, smiling at me and walking towards me.

“And he started laughing. By the time he got to me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I’m your biggest fan. I’m that Trekky.”

Still from a 1967 episode of Star Trek featuring Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhuru.

Still from a 1967 episode of Star Trek featuring Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhuru. Credits: CBS/CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

At first, Nichols said she was speechless.

Eventually, however, she said she mustered up the courage to tell King, “I wish I could be there marching with you.”
She said, to her utter surprise, King told her, “No, no, no… you don’t understand. We don’t need you to… march. You are marching. You reflect what we stand for.”
When Nichols told King about her plans to leave the show, she said that “his face got very, very serious.”

She said he told her, “You can’t do that… Don’t you see what this man (Roddenberry) has achieved? For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen.

“You understand that this is the only performance that my wife Coretta and I will let our young children stay up and watch.”
Nichols continued to act in TV series and also starred in three Star Trek films.
She said she understands the importance of representation and it paid dividends in the end.

“I met Whoopi Goldberg when Jean was filming The Next Generation and she told me when Star Trek started that she was nine years old and she said she turned on the TV and saw me and ran through the house screaming: “Go faster, go! quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she’s not a maid.”