Lieutenant Uhura: Star Trek’s Most Groundbreaking Character
Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in season one of Star Trek in October of 1966. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
When the hit television series, Star Trek, first aired in 1966, it created quite a stir. The show followed a diverse crew of a starship, the USS Enterprise, as they explore the final frontier of space. Created by Gene Roddenberry, 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. But did you know that the original Star Trek was also groundbreaking in its commentary about race and gender? One of the show’s main characters, the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, broke through the stereotypes of the sixties to show audiences a strong, confident, capable black woman in a position of power. Let’s look at what Uhura did to inspire a generation of young black girls during the Civil Rights Movement.
Nichelle Nichols was Cast as Uhura
In the mid-sixties, when Roddenberry was developing the concept for Star Trek, he wanted to show a future that was racially diverse…a world he envisioned happening as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. He did the unprecedented. He cast a black woman in a leadership role. Although she aspired to have a Broadway career, actress Nichelle Nichols proved she could portray the dedicated, intelligent Lieutenant Uhura.
Uhura Immediately Inspired Others
Seeing a woman of color portrayed as an invaluable part of a diverse team was inspiring for others, particularly young, black girls in the 1960s. In one often-told story, Whoopi Goldberg, when she was ten years old, was so impressed with Lt. Uhura on Star Trek that she reportedly ran around her house, yelling, “There’s a black woman on TV and she ain’t no maid!” Lt. Uhura, indeed, represents one of the first times that a black woman was depicted on television, not in a subservient role. She was, in fact, one of the ship’s commanding officers.
Uhura Even Inspired Future Astronauts
Mae Jemison, who would become the first African-American woman to travel into space, was encouraged to pursue a career in the sciences and space exploration in part because of Lt. Uhura. Seeing the smart, capable Uhura handling her complex job with confidence helped to reinforce to Jemison that she could set high goals for herself…that she, too, could reach for the stars.
Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Fan of Uhura
Apparently, after the first season of Star Trek aired, Nichelle Nichols was frustrated with her character’s development and the fact that Lt. Uhura rarely left the ship’s bridge to go on adventures. She told Roddenberry that she was going to quit the show and focus on Broadway, but the next day, something happened that changed her mind. Nichols, while at an NAACP fundraiser, was told that she had a really big fan who wanted to meet her…Martin Luther King, Jr.! Dr. King expressed to Nichols how much he and his family enjoyed seeing her on Star Trek, to which Nichols replied that she had quit the show. Dr. King was distraught and told her, “You can’t…you’re part of history.” That was the first time that Nichols really understood that she was playing a role model for both women and African-Americans who were inspired to see her character being treated as an equal and a trusted and respected team member. Nichols immediately withdrew her resignation from Roddenberry and continued portraying Lt. Uhura.
And Then There is the Kiss
Nichols’ Lt. Uhura and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk have the distinction of showing the first inter-racial television kiss. Roddenberry enjoyed pushing the envelope and busting through societal norms with Star Trek. In one episode that aired in the late 1960s, Shatner and Nichols had a kissing scene…one that caused a lot of debate. The NBC executives were worried about how the kiss would be received, especially by viewers in the deep South, so they decided to shoot two scenes…one with the kiss and one without. But Shatner and Nichols had their own agenda. They purposely and repeatedly botched the non-kissing scene…Shatner even made weird faces and crossed his eyes. The crew had no usable footage to piece together a non-kissing version of the scene, so in the end, all TV stations showed the first inter-racial kiss.
Nichols Was Uhura for 25 Years
Nichols remained true to her groundbreaking character and continued to play her in various spin-offs and movies based on Star Trek. The vision of Roddenberry and the strength and grace of Nichols allowed a revolutionary character like Lt. Uhura to show the people of the sixties that racial and gender equality was the wave of the future.
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