Nichelle Nichols As Lt. Uhura, 'Star Trek's Barrier-Breaking Character

By | November 15, 2018

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Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in season one of Star Trek in October of 1966. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Star Trek, with its brainy plots and serious sci-fi tone, was a groundbreaking TV series when it hit the air in 1966. But no character broke more ground than Star Trek's Uhura, Nichelle Nichols' communications officer. Lieutenant Uhura is a specialist in linguistics, cryptography, and philology, and a professional and respected member of the crew. And she was black. While this doesn't seem remarkable today, Star Trek aired during the Civil Rights Era, when the entertainment industry -- like much of the country -- wasn't welcoming to African Americans.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek as taking place in a more enlightened country, thanks to the strides being made by the civil rights movement, and he very deliberately assembled a cast that was conspicuously diverse. In addition to Lieutenant Uhura, the crew of the Starship Enterprise also included the Asian American character Sulu. 

The series spawned a pop culture empire, with several spin-off TV shows, blockbuster movies, animated children’s series, video games, comic books and more. It's the textbook example of pop-culture entertainment that has lived on for decades thanks to rabid fan following. Cruising around space and having eerie adventures on faraway planets is cool -- doing so while breaking gender and racial barriers is even better. Let’s look at what Uhura did to inspire a generation of young black girls during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Race: The Final Frontier

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Takei and Nichols in the 'Mirror, Mirror' episode of 'Star Trek,' which found them playing alternate versions of their usually strait-laced characters. So no -- Uhura's uniform here is not standard issue. Right: Nichols as Uhura in 'Star Trek II: The Wrat

Roddenberry was fairly obsessed with racial harmony; he believed it was crucial for humanity to continue to do bigger and better things. Humans, he felt, would never see the sort of future he'd dreamed up in Star Trek if they couldn't get past racial strife. He said:

"If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there."

Interestingly, there is no racism as we know it on Star Trek. The multi-cultural crew gets along as Roddenberry would like, but squabbles among alien races sometimes serve as allegories for racial disharmony on 1960s Earth.

The show depicted racial harmony, and the set was generally in tune with that, but some people around the studio weren't so welcoming. Nichols recalls being turned away at the side entrance to the building, where the actors entered, and being made to sign in at the front desk even though she was one of the main cast members. 

"A guard on the set told me I had no right being there — that they had replaced a blue-eyed blonde with me," she told the Huffington Post. "I went through crap, man. Racism was alive and rampant there. Some people said I wasn’t good enough, saying things like, ‘I don’t know how you got this role.’ And they kept waiting for me to complain and raise hell about it, but I decided to ignore it. I never went to Gene [Roddenberry] about it."