Marking 54 Years Since Selma, Nichelle Nichols Remembers Dr. King

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery started 54 years ago today, paving the way for Nichelle Nichols and MLK to intersect in historic fashion

Every day is a good day to celebrate Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, the legend who first embodied the role of Nyota Uhura. But it feels doubly appropriate to do so now. Not only does March have the distinction of being Women's History Month, but on this day in 1965, the game-changing Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march began, sadly with "Bloody Sunday." Dr. Martin Luther King joined the march two days later and, nearly two years after that, Dr. King famously convinced Nichols — who sought the greener pastures and greater challenges of Broadway — to rescind the resignation letter she'd given to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery.
William Lovelace / Stringer

Back in 2011, during an interview with Ian Spelling of StarTrek.com, Nichols recounted how Dr. King inspired her and she'd inspired him and his family, and why she chose to heed his personal request to remain with Star Trek: The Original Series.

"When I told Gene [Roddenberry], I walked away, and as far as I was concerned it was a fait accompli," she said. "Remember, I grew up in musical theater. I belonged to the theater, not to television or movies. Those were things I did when I hadn’t quite made it where I wanted to go, but was on my way. I had quite a lot going for me. I had no idea of the power of being on a screen and people seeing you weekly. But I was ready to go. As nice as this little part was, and I loved the people and I loved working on it, and I was getting experience in a new medium, I didn’t think twice about [leaving]."

Roddenberry, she noted, pleaded with her to stay. He said, "You can’t, Nichelle. Don’t you see what I’m trying to do here?” Nichols  remained "resolute," and handed him a letter of resignation. What happened next astounded her.

Among Nichols' many groundbreaking moments on Star Trek, she and William Shatner would mark the first time an interracial couple kissed on American television when "Plato's Stepchildren" aired in 1968.
StarTrek.com

"He took it and looked at it with sad eyes," Nichols said. "He was behind his desk and I was standing in front of him and – I’ll never forget it – he said, 'I’m not going to accept this yet.' He put it in his desk drawer and said, 'Take the weekend and think about this, Nichelle. If you still want to do this on Monday morning, I will let you go with my blessings. I said, 'Thank you, Gene.' And I thought, 'Whew, that was rough, but I got through it.'”

That weekend, Nichols attended what she remembers as a NAACP fundraiser, "though it could have been something else." Whatever it was, she found herself in Beverly Hills, and seated at the dais as other notables entered the room to join in on the festivities. 

"One of the organizers of the event came over to me and said, 'Ms. Nichols, I hate to bother you just as you’re sitting down to dinner, but there’s someone here who wants very much to meet you. And he said to tell you that he is your biggest fan,'" Nichols said. "I said, 'Oh, certainly,' I stood up and turned around and who comes walking over towards me from about 10 or 15 feet, smiling that rare smile of his, is Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember saying to myself, 'Whoever that fan is, whoever that Trekkie is, it’ll have to wait because I have to meet Dr. Martin Luther King.' And he walks up to me and says, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.' You know I can talk, but all my mouth could do was open and close, open and close; I was so stunned."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 'Selma To Montgomery, Alabama' civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building.
StarTrek.com

Dr. King revealed to Nichols that TOS was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, allowed their little children to stay up and watch. Further, he told Nichols what the show meant to him personally and detailed the importance of her having created a character with "dignity and knowledge." Nichols took it all in and finally said, “Thank you so much, Dr. King. I’m really going to miss my co-stars.” Dr. King's smile, Nichols recalled, vanished from his face.

"He said, 'What are you talking about?'" the actress explained. "I told him. He said, 'You cannot,' and so help me, this man practically repeated verbatim what Gene said. He said, 'Don’t you see what this man is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now, we are here. We are marching. And this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.' He goes on and I’m looking at him and my knees are buckling. I said, 'I…, I…' And he said, 'You turn on your television and the news comes on and you see us marching and peaceful, you see the peaceful civil disobedience, and you see the dogs and see the fire hoses, and we all know they cannot destroy us because we are there in the 23rd century.' 

Dr. King believed that Uhura's presence on the Enterprise's bridge was crucial to the greater Civil Rights Movement.
StarTrek.com

"That’s all it took," Nichols continued. "I went back on Monday morning and told Gene what had happened. He sat there behind that desk and a tear came down his face, and he looked up at me. I said, 'Gene, if you want me to stay, I will stay. There’s nothing I can do but stay.' He looked at me and said, 'God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody truly knows what I am trying to do.' [Roddenberry] opened his drawer, took out my resignation and handed it to me. He had torn it to pieces. He handed me the 100 pieces and said, 'Welcome back.'”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Uhura
Nichelle Nichols
Gene Roddenberry