OK, Trekkies, calm down. She was promoted to Lt. Commander, then Commander, blah, blah. But we’re talking entry-level positions here. And as communications officer for the Enterprise, Lt. Uhura was, as actress Nichelle Nichols said herself, “a glorified phone operator in space.”
While Nichols is often credited as the first African-American actress to play a non-traditional Mammy role in a successful American TV series, the network was still jittery about having a strong black queen front and center. In fact, Nichols was the only original castmember not offered a contract. Instead, she worked on a week-to-week basis, her fan mail was intercepted, and her lines were relegated to hailing the opening frequencies. But nothing freaked out the network more than TV’s first interracial kiss between Nichols and William Shatner, in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” so much so that execs ordered that two versions of the scene be filmed: one with the kiss, and one without it, where Kirk instead dramatically fought off the impulse. But in epic Shatner form, Bill intentionally crossed his eyes to deliberately flub the shot, so they were forced to go with the smooch scene. Still, many stations in the South refused to broadcast the episode, and it was banned in England for almost 25 years. (And yes, Trekkies. We know it wasn’t romantic: space aliens had used mind control to force Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. Sheesh!).”
Nichols nearly quit midway through the first season, until a chance encounter at a civil rights rally with Martin Luther King Jr, apparently a Star Trek fan. According to Nichols, King talked her out of quitting by saying, “For the first time, the world will see us as we should be seen — people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You’re not just a role model for our children, but for people who don’t look like us to see us for the first time as equals.” Coincidentally, Uhura is based off the Swahili word, uhuru, which means freedom. Daaaamn, Uhura.