Fifty years ago Star Trek used science fiction to kick down several social barriers by showing viewers a future where people of different races and genders were treated with equal importance.
For actress Nichelle Nichols, the first black woman to have a continuing co-starring role on TV, it was the beginning of a lifelong career in activism.
And then there was that kiss.
The Smithsonian has published a great article about Nichelle Nichols and her groundbreaking role on Star Trek:
On Nov. 22, 1968, an episode of “Star Trek” titled “Plato’s Stepchildren” broadcast the first interracial kiss on American television.
The episode’s plot is bizarre: Aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the Enterprise crew to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens compel Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to embrace. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens lasciviously look on.
The smooch is not a romantic one. But in 1968 to show a black woman kissing a white man was a daring move.
The episode aired just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that fewer than 20 percent of Americans approved of such relationships.
As a historian of civil rights and media, I’ve been fascinated by the woman at the center of this landmark television moment. Casting Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura created possibilities for more creative and socially relevant “Star Trek” storylines.
But just as significant is Nichols’s off-screen activism. She leveraged her role on “Star Trek” to become a recruiter for NASA, where she pushed for change in the space program. Her career arc shows how diverse casting on the screen can have a profound impact in the real world, too.
In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry decided to cast Nichelle Nichols to play Lieutenant Uhura, a translator and communications officer from the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first African-American woman to have a continuing co-starring role on television.
The African-American press was quick to heap praise on Nichols’s pioneering role.
The Norfolk Journal and Guide hoped that it would “broaden her race’s foothold on the tube.”
The magazine Ebony featured Nichols on its January 1967 cover and described Uhura as “the first Negro astronaut, a triumph of modern-day TV over modern-day NASA.”
Yet the famous kiss between Uhura and Kirk almost never happened.
After the first season of “Star Trek” concluded in 1967, Nichols considered quitting after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her career as a singer in New York and always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple.
But at a NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she ran into Martin Luther King Jr.
Nichols would later recount their interaction.
“You must not leave,” King told her. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you changed the face of television forever…For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.”
King went on to say that he and his family were fans of the show; she was a “hero” to his children.
With King’s encouragement, Nichols stayed on “Star Trek” for the original series’ full three-year run.
Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of the third season. Nichols recalled that NBC executives closely monitored the filming because they were nervous about how Southern television stations and viewers would react.
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