It’s not everyone that gets the kind of endorsement that makes them keep a part they’d decided to quit. But Martin Luther King Jr. is the reason that Nichelle Nichols stayed on as Uhura on the original Star Trek show. She was the first black woman in outer space after all in a series, and as King put it she’d become a symbol. She’d wanted to go and perform in theater, but after hearing him talk she changed her mind and decided to stick around, realizing that her position on the show was far more important than her dream to perform in the theater and pursue a career that she really wanted. She wasn’t being stereotyped in her role, but King convinced her that if she left the show would likely replace her with a blonde-haired white woman and that she would be forever forgotten, thereby destroying the image that she’d created as a strong black woman on the show.
In a lot of ways that seems increasingly positive, as she did stand for a moment of diversity in the show that was badly needed in TV. But if the only reason she stayed was diversity it might be important to note Sulu’s role as well. The show wasn’t incredibly diverse but her sticking around made sure that both women and those of color had someone to look up to when they watched the show. Of course Mr. King couldn’t have known whether or not they would replace her with another woman of color or a white woman, but he obviously knew what words to say in order to get her to stay. And atop that is the fact that he was an admitted Trekkie, so while his motives were coming from a positive place there’s no doubt that he had interest in seeing her on the show for his own enjoyment as well.
The truth of it is that Nichols could have done pretty much anything she wanted. She could have reached the theater and bombed out or she could have hit the stage and been great. But she stayed, and that’s the legacy she has now. Ohura was a mainstay of Star Trek for a great deal of time and stayed on when the movies started as well. She’s been the favorite of many and has made regular appearances at conventions and other events over the years in order to see her fans and enjoy the accolades that still come her way. In some cases she’s been seen as more popular than some of the top stars since people have identified with her on a different level throughout the years. It’s hard to explain really but she’s been one of the most sought after characters when it comes to Star Trek that she’s even eclipsed Spock and Kirk at times.
Those times have been brief but they’ve been noticeable simply because they’ve been so astounding that people had to look twice to make sure they were seeing things correctly. It’s true though, Trekkie’s should feel very fortunate that Nichols decided to stay on.
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