VOICES

Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols boldly went where civil rights movement needed her to go

At a time when many Hollywood reputations have crumbled, she remained golden – just as revered by the Black community today as she was in 1966, when she first beamed into America's living rooms.

It feels like America, and specifically Black America, has lost its last great connection to Hollywood's civil rights movement. Lt. UhuraNichelle Nichols. The iconic star whose sheen never tarnished, died Saturday at the age of 89.

As a Black girl born in the 1970s, the original run of "Star Trek" was long over by the time I knew anything about television. But I came to know Uhura. I grew to love all things science fiction and fantasy, and I craved the reruns of the original series: A strident captain. A Vulcan who prized logic over emotion.

My mind loved the complexity of beaming to new places – something that seems both highly logical and impossible at the same time. But more than that, it was thrilling to see someone who looked like me – a Black female who was smart, unapologetic and real. 

Members of Star Trek's original cast included Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, front, and Nichelle Nichols and DeForest Kelley.

At a time when many Hollywood reputations (even among Nichols' peers) have crumbled, she has remained golden – just as revered by the Black community on the day of her passing as she was on Sept. 8, 1966, the first time she appeared in America's living rooms on the Starship Enterprise.

Martin Luther King kept Nichols on 'Star Trek'

Nichols was the ship's communications officer – the rare example of Black intelligence, accomplishment and inspiration on television during that era. 

Her multiyear run as Uhura almost didn't happen. 

A birthday wish for us all: Laugh, sing and live large regardless of the years

And in fact, it surely wouldn't have if civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. hadn't advised her to stay on television. She wanted to leave for Broadway, as she told it, and it was King who convinced her that her "Star Trek" role was too important to the country and to young Black children to give it up. Nichols reflected on that moment during an NPR interview in 2011.

"We don't need you ... to march," Nichols said the leader told her during their chance encounter at an NAACP event. "You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for." 

'Star Trek' changed America's landscape 

The great leader that he was, King could see what Nichols couldn't – that her presence on American television was vital to the Black community. That she would reach more of us on TV than on the Great White Way.

Column:I got COVID (again). Why are so few following the rules?

Her role on "Star Trek" did not just shape Black America but also slowly changed the attitude of the entire nation. And perhaps King also knew that Black children like me would come along years after the show ended, still needing role models to fill the gaps that Hollywood's landscape would continue to leave fallow. Stories of Uhura's importance have been talked about for generations.

A kiss becomes a pop culture moment

It's impossible to talk about Nichols and "Star Trek" without talking about the kiss – now a pop culture phenomenon. In 1968, during the episode titled "Plato's Stepchildren," Lt. Nyota Uhura and Capt. James T. Kirk kissed. At a time when interracial relationships and marriage (though legal) still came with negative consequences, the episode was certainly a risk. 

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura and William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk in the "Star Trek" episode "Plato's Stepchildren" on Nov. 22, 1968.

I applaud the bravery of the writers and producers who charged ahead with that kissing scene at such a politically and socially charged time in America. The episode aired the same year King (the man responsible for Nichols' continued presence on the show) was assassinated. 

Column:Shatner's flight was 'unbelievable.' Expand opportunity to truly democratize space travel.

But more than that, as a Black American, I will be forever grateful for Nichols' bravery during her many audacious "Star Trek" moments and for her overall sacrifice. As Uhura, she helped pave the way for three-dimensional representations of Black Americans on television (and opened up the possibility that Black people could be fully seen in our daily lives). 

Thank goodness she didn't trade in her red uniform and trademark earpiece for the tempting lights of Broadway.

Eileen Rivers is a projects editor for USA TODAY's Opinion section. Follow her on Twitter @msdc14.