Published Jan 16, 2023
Nichelle Nichols Remembers Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The late actress shared her fondest memories of the civil rights leader.
By StarTrek.com Staff
Every day is a good day to celebrate Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, the legend who first embodied the role of Nyota Uhura. But today, we're also taking time to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a crucial role in Star Trek history.
On March 7, 1965, the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights march began, sadly with "Bloody Sunday." Two days later, the prominent activist and leader in the civil rights movement joined the march, and nearly two years after that, Dr. King famously convinced Nichols, who had sought the greener pastures and greater challenges of Broadway, to rescind the resignation letter she'd given to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Back in 2010, during an interview with StarTrek.com, Nichols recounted how Dr. King inspired her and how 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.
"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. King revealed to Nichols that Star Trek 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. 300 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.'"
"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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