For MLK Day: 'Lt. Uhura' On How Rev. King Told Her To Stay On 'Star Trek'

January 14, 2011

Mark Memmott

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The nation honors the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. And among NPR's offerings that day will be a fascinating story from actress Nichelle Nichols -- known to fans around the world as "Lt. Uhura" on the original Star Trek TV series and six of the later big-screen movies based on that vision of the future.

Star Trek went on the air in 1966. Tell Me More host Michel Martin spoke with Nichols about how the actress almost left the show after one season to return to her first love -- the musical stage.

But at an NAACP dinner in Los Angeles, Nichols says, King told her he was her biggest fan. When Nichols told him she was planning to leave the show, he told her she couldn't do that.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Nichols says King told her, was showing the nation a universe where " 'for the first time, we [African-Americans] are being seen the world over ... as we should be seen'." And " 'you have created a character' " that is critical to that, he said.

King also told her that " 'this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?' "

"I was ... speechless," Nichols says.

She decided to stay on the show. The Lt. Uhura character, as Michel Martin attests, became an icon -- inspiring young black kids, especially girls. When Uhura and Captain Kirk (who, as you probably know, was played by the white actor William Shatner) kissed in the Plato's Stepchildren episode, a racial barrier was broken.

Here's the audio of Nichols talking about her conversation with King:

And here she says that she later knew she'd made the right decision, "because as Dr. King said, 'you have been chosen ... this is historic' ":

Nichols, 78, is still busy acting.

Much more from the conversation, as we said, is due on Monday's edition of Tell Me More. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.