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How Martin Luther King Jr. convinced ‘Star Trek’s’ Lt. Uhura to stay on the show

President Obama and actress Nichelle Nichols, in 2012. (Nichelle Nichols)

There was a time when the woman who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura was thinking about leaving the USS Enterprise, but Martin Luther King Jr. — a huge Trekkie himself — managed to change her mind. It’s a famous story, and actor Nichelle Nichols revisited it this week during a Reddit Ask Me Anything.

Nichols’s portrayal of Uhura marked the first time American television viewers got to see a black, female character who wasn’t a stereotype. But after the first season of “Star Trek,” Nichols decided it was time to leave the show and pursue the career she thought she really wanted, as a Broadway singer. She told series creator Gene Roddenberry she was going to leave.

A Redditor asked Nichols about King’s role in convincing her to stay.

Comment from discussion I Am Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s “Uhura”, first black woman on television in a non-stereotypical role, and recruiter for the first minorities in NASA. AMA!.

Nichols responded that the story was true.

“I was offered a role on Broadway,” she wrote. “I was a singer on stage long before I was an actress, and Broadway was always a dream to me. I was ready to leave Star Trek and pursue what I’d always wanted to do.

“Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of ‘Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’ That got me thinking about how it would look for fans of color around the country if they saw me leave. I saw that this was bigger than just me.”

She added: “I got to do a lot of singing after the series ended.”

When Nichols told this story on NPR in 2011, she described how King approached her:

On Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.
And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.

According to Nichols, she told Roddenberry she had changed her mind (and why). His reply was along the lines of  “finally, someone gets it.”

Another Redditor asked Nichols about whether Roddenberry ever talked about what he was trying to accomplish with the show’s groundbreaking multicultural cast.

“He didn’t talk about it, he just did it,” she replied. “It was who he was. He believed in that world, if you got it you got it. If you didn’t get it, you’d see it anyway.”

Here’s another version of the famous story, from a 2013 interview with the Archive of American Television: