Nichelle Nichols, who played the always-competent communicators officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the iconic sci-fi TV series Star Trek, died yesterday at age 89. Nichols’ legacy is substantial: She was a trailblazer in an era where Black women were rarely seen in prominent television roles, and she even participated in one of TV’s first interracial kisses with co-star William Shatner.
Nichols character Uhura appeared on the original Star Trek TV series from 1966 to 1969 and reprised her role in six Star Trek films. In addition to a futuristic narrative — the show followed the crew of the starship USS Enterprise, a spaceship soaring across galaxies in the 23rd century — Star Trek became known for its diversity. The spaceship’s crew was made up of men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, each with significant roles to play.
Nichols’ role was so important, in fact, that Martin Luther King Jr. himself convinced her to stick with it when she was on the verge of quitting. Feeling discouraged by tepid ratings and having her lines cut following the show’s first season, Nichols considered leaving the show — but she met MLK at an NAACP fundraiser in Hollywood, and the civil rights activist told her how important her representation of a non-stereotypical Black character had been. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? Don’t you see?” Nichols recalled King saying in her autobiography. “This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role… You have broken ground. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be.”
The actresses’ son, Kyle Johnson, announced her death in a statement posted on Facebook. “Her light, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” Johnson wrote, drawing a beautiful analogy between the recent images delivered by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and his mother’s shining legacy.
Several of Nichols’ Star Trek co-stars also shared their memories of Nichols on social media. William Shatner (a.k.a. Captain Kirk) wrote on Twitter: “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.”
George Takei, who played Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu, wrote another post brimming with sentiment: “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” Takei tweeted. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.” Takei also shared a photo of the pair doing the famous Vulcan hand salute along with the accompanying blessing: “We lived long and prospered together.”
Director Adam Nimoy, whose father Leonard Nimoy was another of Nichols’ Star Trek co-stars, shared a black-and-white photo of the pair on set. “My favorite photo of Dad and Nichelle Nichols on set,” Nimoy wrote. “The importance of Nichelle’s legacy cannot be over-emphasized. She was much loved and will be missed.”