Star Trek icon Nichelle Nichols understood the power of fandom firsthand. After all, it was a Trek fan that convinced her to remain with the classic sci-fi show when she tendered her resignation from Starfleet following the freshman year of The Original Series aired between 1966 and 1967. And not just any fan: pioneering civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is the reason why Nichols's communications officer, Lt. Uhura, stayed on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise throughout the show's three-season run, and the many feature films that followed.
The actress — who died on July 30 at age 89 — shared that story with Yahoo Entertainment during an appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2018. "Usually, an actor will respond [with], 'Don't tell me what to do,'" Nichols recalled at the time. "But coming from him, from a true Trekker, you just know what they mean and how deep it goes in their heart and it hits you in the same place." (Watch our video interview above.)
"You become a better you on that show than ever," Nichols continued, reflecting on the way her decision to heed King's advice shaped the rest of her life. "I love the fans because they bring out so much in you."
Had King not stepped in, there's a very real chance than Captain Kirk would have had to have found a different translator to complete the Enterprise's five-year mission. After the first season wrapped up, Nichols informed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that she was leaving the series to renew her focus on her stage career. "I wanted to go to Broadway," she confirmed in a scene from the 2018 documentary, From the Bridge.
But those plans changed after Nichols had her fateful close encounter with King at an NAACP event. "He told me that he was my biggest fan," she remembered in From the Bridge. "And he asked me to please stay on the show — that I was a role model to Black children and women all across America ... He told me that I couldn't leave: that I was part of history." (King was assassinated a year later in 1968.)
Nichols lived long enough to meet some of the Black women she inspired, including another Trek alum, Whoopi Goldberg. In 2016, the Oscar-winning actress — who had a recurring role as advice-giving bartender, Guinan, on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its sequel series, Star Trek: Picard — appeared at a 50th anniversary Las Vegas Star Trek convention and sat with her predecessor onstage.
"You appeared on a show in a position that a woman didn't have in the reality we were living in, Goldberg observed. "On top of it, you happened to be Black, which apparently was a shock to many people. But all of us little girls who were sitting out there... realized that you were representing the future of women." Nichols took the compliment in stride: "When I met you, I said, 'I met my twin,'" the actress told a clearly-moved Goldberg.
Goldberg expanded on her remarks about Nichols on The View earlier today. "Nichelle was the first Black person I’d ever seen who made it to the future," she said. "This show and this woman was a beacon that said yes we’ll be there. And it just made me feel like that was an amazing thing and she helped propel other women to go into space."
"I was lucky enough to spend time with her over the years," Goldberg added. "She was my friend and she’ll be missed."
In the aftermath of Nichols's passing, a number of Star Trek luminaries have been sharing memories of her, including George Takei — one of the three surviving members of the original Enterprise crew alongside William Shatner and Walter Koenig. "We lived long and prospered together," Takei wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of he and Nichols beaming into the camera.
We lived long and prospered together. pic.twitter.com/MgLjOeZ98X
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) July 31, 2022
Shatner also shared his condolences on social media, writing that Nichols "did so much for redefining social issues both here in the U.S. and throughout the world." That's a tacit reference to the famous 1968 Trek episode, "Plato's Children," where Kirk and Uhura share a kiss — the first interracial kiss every broadcast on U.S. television.
I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family. Bill
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 31, 2022
Zoe Saldana, who took over Uhura duties in the J.J. Abrams cinematic reboot, hailed Nichols as an "icon" who "blazed a trail that has shown so many how to see women of color in a different light" and said meeting her was "truly a very special moment in my life."
Other members of the extended Star Trek family have been posting tributes to Nichols as well, including Kate Mulgrew, Wilson Cruz, Jonathan Frakes and politician Stacey Abrams — who is canonically the president of a United Earth in the far future of the Trek timeline. President Joe Biden issued an official White House statement that praised Nichols's "inspiring" career.
"During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek," the White House statement reads. With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond."
Nichelle Nichols was The First. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again.
May she Rest In Peace. #NichelleNichols pic.twitter.com/DONSz6IV2b
— Kate Mulgrew (@TheKateMulgrew) July 31, 2022
Before we understood how much #RepresentationMatters #NichelleNichols modeled it for us. With her very presence & her grace she shone a light on who we as people of color are & inspired us to reach for our potential. Rest well glittering diamond in the sky https://t.co/DmeLFbg825
— Wilson Cruz (@wcruz73) July 31, 2022
Heartbroken at the news of her passing, however, I am comforted in the knowledge that she illuminated the way for so of us many with her grace, beauty, talent, intelligence and her commitment to humanity going boldly to the stars! #godess #queen
— LeVar Burton (@levarburton) July 31, 2022
— Jonathan Frakes (@jonathansfrakes) August 1, 2022
One of my most treasured photos - Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars. #RIPNichelle #Uhura pic.twitter.com/nFXHif8HEC
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) July 31, 2022
Meanwhile, in a full circle moment, two of King's surviving children have issued their own statements about how Nichols helped change the world of tomorrow for the better.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) July 31, 2022
— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) July 31, 2022
Star Trek: The Original Series is currently streaming on Paramount+.