Nichelle Nichols’ Legacy Was Much Bigger Than Her Star Trek Kiss

In a 1968 episode of star trekNichelle Nichols, who plays Lieutenant Uhura, kissed William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in what is believed to be the first kiss between a black woman and a white man on American television.

The plot of the episode is strange. Aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the Business crew to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens force Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk into an embrace. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk leans Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens leer.

The kiss is not romantic. But in 1968, showing a black woman kissing a white man was a bold move. The episode aired just a year after the US Supreme Court. love against virginia The decision struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polling showed that less than 20 percent of Americans approved of such relationships.

As a civil rights and media historian, I have been fascinated by the woman at the center of this historic moment in television. The casting of Nichols, who passed away on July 30, 2022, created possibilities for more creativity and social relevance. star trek stories

But just as significant is Nichols’ off-screen activism. She took advantage of her role in star trek to become a recruiter for NASA, where she drove change in the space program. Her career arc shows how the diverse cast on screen can also have a profound impact in the real world.

“A Triumph of Modern Television”

In 1966, star trek creator Gene Rodenberry decided to cast Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, a translator and communications officer for the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first black woman to have a continuous co-starring role on television.

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The black press was quick to praise Nichols’ pioneering role. The Norfolk Journal and Guide he hoped it would “expand his race’s foothold in the tube”. Magazine Ebony featured Nichols on its January 1967 cover and described Uhura as “the first black female astronaut, a triumph of modern television over modern NASA”.

William Shatner and with Nichelle Nichols in 2006.CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images

However, the famous kiss between Uhura and Kirk almost never happened.

After the first season of star trek concluded in 1967, Nichols considered quitting after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her singing career in New York and always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple. But at an NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she ran into Martin Luther King Jr.

Nichols would later recount their interaction.

“You must not go,” King told him. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close… you changed the face of television forever. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people”.

King went on to say that he and his family were fans of the show; she was a “hero” to her children.

Nichelle Nichols (left) with NASA Director of Community Affairs Curtis Graves and Congresswoman Yvonne Burke in 1977.Afro Newspaper/Gado/File Photos/Getty Images

With King’s encouragement, Nichols stayed on star trek for the full three-year run of the original series.

Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of the third season. Nichols recalled that NBC executives closely monitored the filming because they were nervous about how television stations and viewers in the South would react.

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After the episode aired, the network received a large number of letters from viewers, and most of them were positive.

In 1982, Nichols would tell the baltimore african american that he was amused by the amount of attention the kiss generated, especially since his own heritage was “a mixture of races including Egyptian, Ethiopian, Moorish, Spanish, Welsh, Cherokee Indian, and one or two blonde, blue-eyed ancestors.” .’”

Nichelle Nichols: Space Crusade

Nichols at the Comic Excitement Convention in Los Angeles in 2017.Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But Nichols’ legacy would be defined by much more than a kiss.

After NBC canceled star trek In 1969, Nichols took on supporting roles in two television series, Vision Y he gives She would also play a lady in the 1974 blaxploitation film. truck tipper.

He also began dabbling in activism and education. In 1975, Nichols established Women in Motion Inc. and won several contracts to produce educational programs related to space and science. In 1977, she had been appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute, a civil space defense organization.

That year he delivered a speech at the institute’s annual meeting. In it, she criticized the lack of women and minorities in the astronaut corps, challenging NASA to “come down from its ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a black face, and she is a woman.”

Several of NASA’s top administrators were in the audience. She was invited to lead an astronaut recruitment program for the new space shuttle program. Soon, she packed her bags and began traveling the country, visiting high schools and colleges, speaking with professional organizations and legislators, and appearing on national television shows like Good morning america.

“The goal was to find qualified people among women and minorities, then convince them that the opportunity was real and that it was also a must because this was historic,” Nichols told the baltimore african american in 1979. “He really had this sense of purpose about it.”

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In his 1994 autobiography, Beyond UhuraNichols recalled that in the seven months before the recruiting program began, “NASA had received only 1,600 applications, including fewer than 100 from women and 35 from minority candidates.” But by the end of June 1977, “just four months after we took up our assignment, 8,400 applications had been received, including 1,649 from women (a fifteen-fold increase) and a staggering 1,000 from minorities.”

Nichols’ campaign recruited several pioneering astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Guion Bluford, the first African American in space; and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.

Relentless advocacy for inclusion

Nichols with his co-stars Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and Walter Koenigs in 2012.CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images

His advocacy for inclusion and diversity was not limited to the space program.

As one of the first black women in a major role on television, Nichols understood the importance of opening doors for minorities and women in entertainment.

Nichols continued to push for more power for African Americans in film and television.

“Until we blacks and minorities become not only producers, writers and directors, but also buyers and distributors, we’re not going to change anything,” he said. Ebony in 1985. “Until we become an industry, until we control the media or at least have enough of a voice, we will always be the chauffeurs and the tap dancers.”

This article was originally published on The conversation by matthew delmont at Dartmouth College. Read the original article here.

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