In 1966, race riots and voting rights marches pervaded the United States. Not helping the struggle for black liberation were film and television roles that rendered black characters with offensive stereotypes which perpetuated (and still perpetuate) racial inequity. As one of the first black actors with a substantial role, Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura (portrayed by Nichelle Nichols) paved the way for many black actors and explorers to come.
Star Trek offered a revolutionary vision in which problem-solving was motivated by inclusion, optimism, and diversity. Uhura, whose name stems from the Swahili word for freedom, promoted racial and gender equity during times of intense social maelstrom. As communications director, Uhura dedicated her work to understand differences among languages to facilitate peaceful negotiations.
Even though Uhura was excelling on the Enterprise, Nichelle Nichols was planning to quit the show. At an NAACP fundraiser, however, Dr. Martin Luther King convinced her otherwise. King introduced himself and explained his personal gratitude for her role: “For the first time, we are seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role—you have an equal role…You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?” Nichelle Nichols stayed on the show.
Shortly thereafter, Uhura participated in the first on-screen biracial kiss on the lips. The kiss was a monumental historic moment that helped cultural acceptance of interracial relationships. This is especially so because the famous kiss was only a year after the Supreme Court banned laws against interracial marriage.
The original Star Trek series is one of the most culturally-influential shows of all time and the first African-American woman astronaut, Mae Jemison, credits Uhura’s role as what “helped to fuel my whole idea that I could be involved in space exploration as well as in the sciences.” Uhura is a pioneer. Vote Uhura as the strongest woman role on television from the last 50 years!