Nichelle Nichols, best known as the communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura of the starship Enterprise, died July 30. She was 89. Her groundbreaking performances in Star Trek, corresponding with the Civil Rights movement in the United States, helped set the first standard for diversity and inclusion in mainstream screen entertainment.
As Uhura, Nichols was a core presence during Star Trek’s original run on NBC from 1966 to 1969. To that point, Black actresses were largely given servile or ancillary roles in television and theater. But Nichols, radiating professionalism and 1960s mod-style sex appeal from her chair on the Enterprise’s bridge, opened a channel to Hollywood for stars like Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, and Pam Grier.
Born Grace Dell Nichols on Dec. 28, 1932 in the Chicago suburb of Robbins, Illinois, she modeled and starred in several stage plays during her 20s and 30s, including James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, before her breakthrough on Star Trek.
Despite her success in Star Trek’s first season, Nichols felt called to Broadway, and tendered her resignation to show creator Gene Roddenberry after receiving several offers for major stage roles. The following weekend, she was a celebrity guest at an NAACP banquet, where she met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“As a matter of fact, [Star Trek] is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch, because it’s on past their bedtime,” King said, according to Nichols’ recollection for the Television Academy Foundation.
“And I got the courage to say, ‘I really am going to miss my co-stars,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m leaving Star Trek,’ and he said, ‘You cannot.’ […] He said, ‘For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen, every day.’”
Nichols withdrew her resignation and continued with the series, culminating in her role in season 3, episode 10, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” where she shared a kiss with William Shatner, the first interracial romance depicted on American television. The scene came one year after a Supreme Court decision nullifying Southern states’ laws against marriage between races.
Though the series’ first run was cancelled in 1969, Nichols remained a singularly identifiable Star Trek figure in the coming decades. She is, along with Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, and Walter Koenig, one of seven officers commanding the Enterprise from its original three-year mission in the 1960s through six feature film appearances from 1979 to 1991.
On Earth, Nichols was an ambassador for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration beginning in 1977, specifically to advocate for the training and assignment of women and minority candidates for spaceflight roles. In 2012, NASA credited Nichols for inspiring the careers of Sally Ride (the first American woman in space) and fellow astronauts Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, and Judith Resnik.