Unsung Heroines: Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols is best known for her role on the original series of Star Trek, as Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS enterprise. When she took on this role, she became one of the first black women to act in a major television series, not portraying a servant. Her character, specialising in alien linguistics and translation, was crucial to the show’s plotlines – in particular, in one episode she takes control of the ship and leads a party to rescue the other members of the crew. Despite the inspiring role she had undertaken, Nichelle felt her role in the show was diminishing, and set her sights on the bright lights of Broadway. She had been an excellent singer and dancer in many productions and had toured the world with Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra among other bands before she joined the Star Trek cast, and she wanted to further her career in the world of musical theatre. But her plans changed when at an event, Nichols was told her greatest fan was there to meet her.

“I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face.”

He told her that Star Trek was the only show that he would allow his three children to stay up and watch. When Nichols admitted that she was planning to leave the show, he insisted ‘You can’t. You’re part of history.’ By that time the series had a huge influence on the US public and a large fan base. King told her “For the first time, we are seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role – you have an equal role” This encounter meant that Nichelle continued to inspire, playing the role for another 24 years. In 1968, Nichols acted the famous interracial kiss – the first to be written for and broadcasted on US television. The directors had planned to film the scene and decide later whether to include it in the episode, but Nichols and Shatner deliberately spoiled the other scenes so that the segment that was to become so iconic would have to be included in the show.

After the show’s run had ended Nichols made an affiliation between NASA and the company she helped to run called “Women in Motion”. She spent her time recruiting women and ethnic minorities to NASA, using her power as a sci-fi household name to allow people to really travel to space. Her volunteer work meant that Dr Sally Ride, the first female astronaut as well as Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, became part of NASA. She believed strongly that science was for everyone, and through her participation in organisations, and talks in schools and universities, she actively made a difference in the scientific sphere. She once said:

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.”

 

Nichols is still acting at the age of 85. She clearly has a tireless determination. Her work towards racial and gender equality has helped to shape television and science as we know it today, as she fought for diversity. While she is well known for her role in the Star Trek series, her partnership with NASA in bringing about social change is less widely acknowledged. She is a truly inspirational advocate of both equality and space exploration, who uses her power and influence to make a positive impact on the world.