I spent my Sunday afternoon gutted when I learned Nichelle Nichols had passed away. I knew she had been in declining health for some time, but that didn’t make it easier. When I first started watching Star Trek in 2009, I was quickly entranced by Nichols’ performance as Lt. Nyota Uhura. She instantly became one of my favorite Original Series characters, and I was charmed by her beauty and quiet strength on the bridge of the Enterprise. I loved the rare occasions that we got to hear her sing. I also recognized that it was a big deal for her to be present on the bridge as a Black woman in 1966, when Star Trek: The Original Series premiered — even before doing one of my characteristic IMDB trivia deep-dives.
It is difficult to overstate Nichelle’s importance to women and people of color in the film and television industry. Not only that, she quite literally changed the face of NASA in her campaign to recruit women and people of color. Let me tell you a little more about the legend that is Nichelle Nichols.
A Conversation with the King
Much ink has been spilled on Nichelle Nichols’ conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but in case you’ve not heard the story, here’s a quick recap. Nichelle was prepared to quit Star Trek after facing racial harassment from viewers and the studio. Attending an NAACP fundraiser, Nichelle happened to run into an enthusiastic Star Trek fan — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King encouraged Nichols to reconsider her resignation. He told her that her role was too important. She was 4th in command on the Enterprise, and her presence was a positive role model for African Americans. With that, Nichelle pulled her resignation and returned to the bridge. I am thankful for that conversation, not just because we got to keep having Uhura on screen, but for the inspiration her presence provided, and continues to provide for so many people.
Dr. King was quite right in his assessment. Her presence there inspired many Black women, as well as other women and people of color, in various fields.
Whoopi Goldberg famously became an actress because she saw Nichols on screen and shouted to her family, “There’s a Black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!” She actually specifically requested to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, even though she was an Oscar-nominated actress. In a time when TV was not on equal footing with film as it is today, this was a very big deal.
Politician and advocate for voter rights, Stacey Abrams, grew up loving Star Trek because it showed her a world of equality and hope. Because of this, Abrams now works tirelessly to create voter equality and make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote has that opportunity. Abrams made a cameo as the President of United Earth in the finale of Star Trek: Discovery season four this year. In a tribute on her Twitter account, Abrams shared a photo of her and Nichols, calling it one of her “most treasured photos,” honoring Nichelle as a beacon of hope for so many.
Hailing Frequencies Open
In the late 1970s, NASA brought Nichelle in to help them recruit women and people of color for the space program. When she was hired, she told NASA:
“I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position…that if you don’t choose one … everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”
Nichelle and NASA made good on those promises. Astronauts Guion “Guy” Bluford, Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair were all inspired by Nichelle and were recruited under her initial campaign with NASA. Bluford was the first African American in space, and Ride was the first American woman in space.
Dr. Mae Jemison brought it full circle when she joined NASA, becoming the first Black woman in space. Jemison grew up watching Star Trek and knew she wanted to go into space after seeing Uhura at Communications. When Jemison first contacted NASA from space, she took a page from Uhura’s book stating, “Hailing frequencies open.” She later became the first real astronaut to actually appear on a Star Trek show, making a cameo in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
These kinds of real-world changes were brought about just by seeing one Black actress in a position of equality. Don’t let anyone tell you representation doesn’t matter. These astronauts are the embodiment of the importance of representation.
Nichelle wasn’t just helping send people to space. She got a little taste of it herself at the age of 82. Nichelle got to go up on SOFIA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Boeing 747SP. The mission analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission. She continued to be an advocate for space exploration and would work with NASA until 2015.
To the Stars
There’s much inspiration to be taken from Nichelle Nichols’ life and work. But what I think is beautifully symbolic is her character’s name, Nyota Uhura. Uhura is taken from the Swahili word, uhuru, which means “freedom.” Nyota is also a Swahili word, which means “star.” Nichelle indeed showed people that equality and freedom are attainable and that everyone can truly reach for the stars. To coin a phrase from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars”, Nichelle was both “…the dreamer and the dream.”
You can learn more about Nichelle Nichols in the documentary, Woman in Motion, on Paramount+.