Nichelle Nichols, who broke new ground as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek franchise, has died. Details of her passing have not yet been made public, but she suffered a stroke in 2015. She was 89 years old.
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When she joined the original run of Star Trek in the mid-‘60s, Nichols became not only one of the first Black women featured in a major television series, but also one of the first portrayals of a Black woman in a position of authority. Creator Gene Roddenberry allowed Nichols to name the character herself; her surname was Swahili for “freedom.”
The show wasn’t your usual sci-fi adventure. It offered a futuristic utopia where men and women of all races worked together, and in which non-white characters weren’t stereotypes. The show casually pushed back against retrograde attitudes, while reflecting the future sought by civil rights activists. Along with co-star William Shatner, Nichols had what has been cited as the first interracial kiss on scripted television, about a year and a half after Loving v. Virginia banned anti-miscegenation laws.
Nichols famously almost left Star Trek after its first season. She was sick of having her lines repeatedly cut. She was tired of racist insults off-set and of condescension from TV execs, who kept her from reading her fan mail. According to The Atlantic Journal-Constitution, one fan kept her from taking off: Martin Luther King Jr.:
But the next day, at an NAACP function, a fan greeted her: Martin Luther King Jr. He told her how important her role was and how he and his family watched Star Trek faithfully and adored her in particular — the only Black character.
Nichols thanked him, but said she planned to leave.
“You cannot and you must not,” she recalls him saying. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? … Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground.
“… For the first time,” he continued, “the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be.”
Nichols went on to play Uhura, who was later promoted to commander, over the next few decades: on two more seasons of the show, on the animated ’70s series, and in six movies. She also played herself on two episodes of Futurama, one of which got (most) of the Trek gang back together.
Nichols did not make an appearance in the J.J. Abrams-led big screen reboot that began in 2009, where Uhura was recast as Zoe Saldana. But she always helped promote the franchise and meet with some of its biggest fans, including the nation’s first Black president. She will be missed.
(Via The Washington Post)