Martin Luther King did a great many things during his tragically short life, but for a certain subculture made up of people capable of such things as enjoying entire conversations in Klingonese, his ultimate achievement may have been saving Lt. Uhura from becoming just another in the long list of Red Shirt Victims. Little do most people know that it was Martin Luther King who was the central figure in keeping one of the the first non-stereotypical black female characters on American TV from fading into obscurity.
Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine shall we, Mr. Peabody. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek tells NBC executives that he wants to add a little color to the bridge of the Enterprise. Not being Einsteins in any sense of the world, the guys who controlled what you saw on NBC in the late 60s thought Roddenberry was being quite literal and wanted merely to liven up the look of the bridge. Of course, what Roddenberry actually meant was that he wanted to introduce a black character.
Making things even worse, that black character would also be a woman. To suggest that the dunderheads running NBC were aghast is to be charitable. So vile were those actually given positions of power at NBC in the 1960s that they actually ordered that Nichelle Nichols not be made aware of the fact that the fan letters she received were more than both the living ego himself William Shatner and the man who is perhaps the nicest person in the history of TV, Leonard Nimoy.
Lt. Uhura was quickly becoming one of the most popular characters on the show and setting herself up as a major player in the Civil Rights Movement simply by virtue of being an inspiration to young black girls as varied as Whoopi Goldberg and first black female astronaut Mae Jemison. What NBC’s execs should have been doing at the time was getting down on their knees and thanking the gods that there were any little black girls anywhere in America actually watching “Star Trek.”
But that’s not what they were doing. Turns out that during all this time that Nichelle Nichols’s strong and smart character of Uhura was quite literally doing things every week that no one had ever seen a black female character do on TV before, she was doing it without a contract. In fact, Nicholls was the only cast member not under contract. The yokels running NBC were hoping against hope that something could be done to get her off the show and as a result she was appearing on “Star Trek” on an episode-to-episode basis. What the execs at NBC failed to realize, however, was that Gene Roddenberry had been able to work the loopholes in their own system against them and as a result Nichols was actually making more money than if she’d been under contract.
Nevertheless, Nichols was unhappy with her treatment on the show and as much as she enjoyed playing Lt. Uhura instead of being a maid or nurse which were pretty much the only roles offered to black women even during the late 60s (Rosetta LeNoire, who played the grandmother on Family Matters, gives a heartbreaking account in the fabulous documentary Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist about how a producer flatly told her to her face he would never cast her as anything but a maid), she was considering beaming off the Enterprise for good when the first season drew to a close.
It is at this point that the Wrath of King enters the picture.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nichelle Nichols had never met, but knew each other well. Every black person in America in the 1960s knew who Martin Luther King was, but what Nichelle Nichols did not know was that King knew who she was. She found out purely through accident when the two Civil Rights icons met at a function. Nichelle Nichols told Dr. King that she was considering leaving the role of Lt. Uhura and explained why. Had King and Nichols not met that night, television and movie history may have changed forever. The new Star Trek might not have included an interspecies romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura. Whoopi Goldberg might never have had a recurring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation . Heck, it is even within the realm of possibility that Mae Jemison would not have become the first black female astronaut in space.
Upon hearing that Nichols was considering walking away from “Star Trek,” Martin Luther King informed her that he was actually a big fan of the show. He further insisted that she could not leave because she was breaking new ground that might very well get covered right back over with dirt if she left. She was opening a door that could never be closed again. But for King, there was still an even more important reason why Lt. Uhura represented something so earth-shattering that Nichols simply could not allow herself to be bullied away. Nichols herself was just a black woman on a low-rated TV show most people couldn’t take seriously and yet certain factions within NBC were up-in-arms about her presence on the set.
Meanwhile, a black woman was fourth in command of a spaceship and nobody on that ship had ever expressed the slightest bit of concern over that fact.