Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Convinced Nichelle Nichols To Stay On Star Trek

Looking back more than half a century after it debuted, it's easy to forget that "Star Trek" was a revolutionary series. The groundbreaking sci-fi show contained blistering allegories for McCarthyism, a Russian ensign working under an Iowan captain at the height of the Cold War, and a willingness to show George Takei shirtless, despite Americans' susceptibility to swooning. And then there's the show's willingness to tackle issues of race. Sometimes it's overt: Recall Frank Gorshin, painted half white and half black, arguing with a guy painted half black and half white. Other times, the show takes a subtler route, presenting something close to a post-racial society as a happy inevitability, rather than a spectacle.

No character embodies this progressive spirit more than Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. The show rarely calls attention to her place on the bridge alongside a largely white crew. This presentation of her as an equal made her an inspiration to generations of viewers, including Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to play Guinan on later "Star Trek" series. According to a story that Nichols later recounted to NPR, Goldberg saw Uhura on TV as a child and ran through the house, screaming, "There's a Black lady on TV and she ain't no maid."

It's difficult to imagine Nichols ever considered leaving "Star Trek," considering what a pop culture cornerstone it became. But she did — and she changed her mind with the help of Martin Luther King, Jr.

King convinced Nichols to let her career live long and prosper

Bonkers as it might sound, this story comes straight from Nichols herself, who graced fans with a Reddit AMA back in 2015. Asked about a rumor that Dr. King had convinced her to stay on the Enterprise, the then-85-year-old performer took the opportunity to set the record straight. "This is true," she wrote. "I had several conversations with him over the years, and it sounds like the stories have gotten mixed and confused. I was offered a role on Broadway ... I was ready to leave 'Star Trek' and pursue what I'd always wanted to do."

Then came the twist: "Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I'd first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of 'Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become [a] symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you've accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.'"

Understandably, this talk gave Nichols pause. She began to consider the ramifications of her departure, and how wide-ranging they might be. In the end, she decided to stay. Nichols would go on to appear in "Star Trek" projects for decades to come, even appearing posthumously via archived audio in "Kobayashi," a 2022 episode of "Star Trek: Prodigy."