Star Trek’s willingness to confront important social issues remains a compelling part of its legacy for actress Nichelle Nichols.
Making her debut in the 1966 “Star Trek” episode “The Man Trap,” Nichols, 81, played the USS Enterprise’s chief communications officer, Lt. Uhura. Her role was a critical part on the ship’s crew, who embraced diversity — regardless of race or sex — as they warped off on a five-year mission of exploration.
“Star Trek is about the freedom to be who you are, and be respected for who you are,” Nichols recently told CNN. “It demands that you respect everyone else equally. It’s as simple as that.”
The fact she is an African-American women made her casting at that time revolutionary. Even Martin Luther King Jr. took notice, appealing to Nichols to remain on the series when she had doubts about continuing with the role. King saw Uhura as a uniquely powerful role model for black people throughout the world.
“That was the greatest thing,” she said. “That was greater than anything else, to be told that by Dr. Martin Lurther King, because he was my leader.
“So I stayed and I never regretted it.”
Later, NASA would also look to Nichols for inspiration. The space agency asked her to help recruit female and ethnic minority astronauts.
Her efforts lead to the discovery of several key NASA figures, including Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Col. Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut.
“As a matter of fact, Sally called me to tell me that I was the way she had heard about the space program,” Nichols said. “I was somewhat of a celebrity in their eyes. I had gone on television and in several interviews spoke of why they should get involved, and they took it up and said ‘she’s absolutely right.'”
In addition to “Star Trek,” Nichols did voice work on “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and appeared in six of the franchise’s feature films, concluding in 1991 with “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”
See more of Nichols’ interview with CNN here.