Nichelle Nichols was about to quit her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the iconic Star Trek TV series when one of the most unlikely Trekkies – Martin Luther King Jr – convinced her not to.
In a 2011 interview with US National Public Radio (NPR), the star confessed that his first love was musical theatre.
“I grew up in musical theatre. For me, the highlight and quintessence of my life as a singer, actor and dancer/choreographer was performing on Broadway,” said Nichols, who died Saturday at age 89 in Silver City, New Mexico.
According to the 2010 documentary Trek Nation, midway through the television program’s first season in 1966–67, Nichols informed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry of his decision to quit.
“I went 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 central role on a major television show, told NPR. .
“And he said, take the weekend and think about what I’m trying to achieve here on this show. You’re an integral part of it and you’re very important to it. And so I said, yes, I will. .
This very weekend, Nichols met Mr. King at a fundraiser, and the chance meeting changed the course of his life and the history of pop culture.
“Saturday night I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills,” Nichols said.
Come quickly, come quickly. There’s a black woman on TV and she’s not a good one.
“And one of the promoters came up to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he’s your biggest fan.
“And I’m thinking of a Trekker, you know.
“And I turned around and before I could get up I looked the other way and there was the face of Dr Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking towards me.
“And he started laughing. The moment he joined me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I’m your biggest fan. I’m that Trekkie.
An image from a 1967 episode of Star Trek, featuring Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. Credit: CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images
At first, Nichols said she was speechless.
Eventually, however, she said she found the courage to tell King, “I wish I could walk with you.”
She said to her surprise, King told her, “No, no, no.. you don’t understand. We don’t need you to… to walk. You walk. You reflect what we stand for.
When Nichols informed King of her intention to leave the show, she said “his face got very, very serious.”
She said he said to her, “You can’t do this… Don’t you understand what this man (Roddenberry) has achieved? For the first time we are seen around the world as we should be seen.
“Do you understand that this is the only show my wife Coretta and I will allow our grandchildren to stand and watch.”
Nichols went on to star in the television series and appeared in three Star Trek films.
She said she understood the importance of representation and it ultimately paid off.
“I met Whoopi Goldberg when Gene was doing The Next Generation and she told me when Star Trek came along that she was nine and she said she turned on the TV and saw me and ran to through the house shouting, ‘Come quick, come quick. There’s a black woman on TV and she’s not a good one.