On Monday, United States citizens will celebrate the legacy and achievments of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders in the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of King’s greatest mantras was: ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
King embodied that to his core.
And aparently it carried over into the entertainment circle as well. In an interview with Emmy Legends, actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her portrayal of Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, and its film sequels, shared that Dr. King was a fan of Star Trek and convinced her to remain on the series after she contemplated leaving. By the end of the first season [of Star Trek], I had so much fan mail that I didn’t know I had that was in the mailroom, that they offered me a contract,” Nichols recounted.
“I also was offered a role in a play to do that was Broadway bound and I was going to leave the show and take that; and it was a good role – I forget what the heck it was and I went in and told Gene [Roddenberry] when the season was up, I was going to leave the show and Gene said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, ‘Yes I can!’ and he said, “Don’t you understand what I’m trying to achieve here?” And I said, ‘Gene, you’ve been wonderful and I really thank you for this opportunity, but you know… my life is theater. Musical theater. And I’m getting offers for all kinds of wonderful things, and that’s where I want to be…’ and he’s sitting behind his desk and he looked up at me and I handed him my resignation letter that I had written out. And he took it after I laid it on the desk; he looked at it and he said, “Take the weekend Nichelle and think about it. And if you feel the same way the beginning of next week… think about this. It’s MORE than you think it is. Just think about it. And if you still want to go by Monday morning, I’ll give you my blessing and you go with my blessings.” And he took the resignation and stuck it in his desk drawer. And I said, ‘Thanks Gene and skipped out of there.”
For those keeping score at home: Nichols’ portrayal as Uhura was groundbreaking for African American female characters on American television.
More specifically: While on Star Trek, Nichols was one of the first black women featured in a major television series as her prominent supporting role as a bridge officer was unprecedented.
Moreover, former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols’ role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols’ influence.
Goldberg asked for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the character Guinan was specially created, while Jemison appeared on an episode of the series.
With power comes great responsibility and a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King reminded Nichols of her impact at a function that they both attended. “I was to be a celebrity guest at some fundraiser in Beverly Hills,” she said.
“I believe that it was a NAACP fundraiser, but it might not have been but I think it was. And so, I went to do this on that Saturday night and I had just been taken to the desk and sat down when the organizer came over and said, “Ms. Nichols, How are you? Listen, there’s someone here who says that he’s your biggest fan and he’s desperate to meet you. He REALLY wants to meet you!” And I said, ‘Well thank you!’
“I stand up and turn and I’m thinking that it’s a Star Trek fan. The guy said it was a Star Trek fan and I’m looking for a young man that was a Star Trek fan…I turn and instead of a fan, there’s this face that the WHOLE world knows with this beautiful smile on and I remember thinking, ‘Whoever that fan is, is going to have to wait because Dr. King; Dr. Martin Luther King my leader is walking toward me about 10 feet away with a beautiful smile on his face!’ and then this man says, “Yes Ms. Nichols. I am THAT fan! I am your best fan, your greatest fan. And my family are your greatest fans. As a matter of fact, this is the ONLY show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch; to stay up and watch because it’s on past their bedtime.” And I said – which is all I was able to say because my mouth was open and closed. He said, “We admire you greatly you know. The manner in which you create this role has dignity…” and before he said anything else I said, ‘Dr. King, thank you so much.’”
At that very moment, Nichols then reveals to Dr. King that she was leaving the cast of Star Trek. “And then I got the courage to say, ‘I really am going to miss my co-stars…,'” she revealed.
“And he said, “What do you mean?” Dead serious. “What are you talking about?” I said, ‘I’m going to leave Star Trek because I have an offer to star in a Broadway…’ I never got that far [laughs]…he said, “You cannot!” and I felt like that little boy Arnold like – Whatchu talkin’ about Dr. King? But you know I didn’t say that! [laughs]. I was taken aback and I didn’t say anything. I just looked at him. He said, “Don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time on television, WE will be seen as we should be seen every day as intelligent, quality beautiful people who can sing, dance and act AND also people who can go into space; who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors who are in this day and you don’t see it on television until now.” And he went on so many of the things; perhaps some of the things he said, but I couldn’t say nothing . I just stood there realizing every word that he was saying was the truth. And he said, “If you leave Nichelle, Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role and it’s NOT a female role. He can fill it with anything including an alien.” And at that moment, the world tilted for me and I knew then – I didn’t want to know it because I was going to go through some more turmoil the rest of the week. But I knew that I was something else; that the world was not the same. And that’s all that I could think of – it’s Dr. King. Everything that he had said… the world sees us for the first time as we should be seen. And I remember being angry come Sunday. I’m thinking, ‘Why me? Why should I have to?…’”
Nichols had the weekend to figure everything out with her resignation letter still in waiting. “Come Monday morning, I went to Gene and I’m not sure to this day if I knew what I was going to say,” recounted Nichols.
“He was sitting behind that same dang desk and he had whoever he was talking to, to leave because I was there first, and I told him what happened and I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’ And he opened his drawer and her looked up at me and said, “God Bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody knows where I am coming from!…” and I said, ‘That’s what he said! [in my brain], and he took out my resignation which was torn into a hundred pieces and handed me the pile, and we just stood there looking at each other and I finally said, ‘Thank you Gene.’ And he said to me, “Thank you Nichelle.” And my life has never been the same since and I’ve never looked back. I’ve never regretted it because I understood that the universe had somehow; that universal mind had somehow put me there and we have choices… Are we going to walk down this road or are we going to walk down the other?”