Grace Dell Nichols
By now, you've undoubtedly learned of the death yesterday of Grace Dell Nichols - although you probably know her by her stage name, Nichelle Nichols - at the age of 89. Her son announced that she died of "natural causes," which is true of any decedent who isn't a victim of violence, infection, or accident, but she was institutionalized in 2019 because of dementia, and so the specific "natural cause" of her passing is, at present, undefined.
Not that it matters.
What does very much matter is her groundbreaking role as Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura in the 1966 science fiction series Star Trek. Uhura was a member of the bridge crew of the Constitution-class Federation of Planets starship USS Enterprise (hull number NCC-1701), and, as such a major character in the show, who appeared in every episode of the series. That was a first for a Black actor in the 1960's.
When Nichols decided to leave the cast at the end of the first season for a role on Broadway it famously led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who described himself to her as "her biggest fan," and who confessed that Star Trek was the only prime-time program he and his wife Coretta would allow their three very young children to stay up until 9:00pm to watch, to passionately argue that she "must not leave" because the character of Uhura was so crucial to the struggle for civil rights in America. He made her understand that the show's presentation of Uhura as a bridge officer -- without ever mentioning the fact of her race (or, indeed, her sex) as worthy of special note, or as anything other than routine -- was crucial both for the way that Black people saw themselves and their future in society, and for the way White Americans of the day perceived Black people's place in that future.
His appeal caused Nichols to change her mind about quitting Star Trek. When she informed series producer Gene Roddenberry that she wanted to retract her resignation, and cited Dr. King's appeal to her as the reason, he returned her letter of resignation (which he had previously torn to pieces) to her, and burst into tears at her revelation that the great civil rights leader had proudly characterized himself as a fan of the show.
Nichols went on to have a long career in show business, circling back to the Star Trek universe again and again throughout, but she also devoted a great deal of her time and energy to NASA's efforts to recruit minority and female astronauts. Among them were Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Guion Bluford, the first Black astronaut. and Charles Bolden, who flew on the Space Shuttle seven times and capped his career as the head of the space agency.
The news of Nichols' death saddened me, as I'm sure it did you. But her life was a long one, filled with triumphs and breakthroughs, including the scene in the Star Trek episode "Plato's Children" where Uhura and Captain Kirk share the first interracial kiss ever portrayed on American primetime television.
Dr. King was right about how important her role as Uhura was, and this country is better for her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise.
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