The Story Behind TV’s Iconic First Interracial Kiss On ‘Star Trek’ With Nichelle Nichols

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(THE CONVERSATION) In a 1968 episode of “Star Trek,” Nichelle Nichols, playing Lt. Uhura, locked lips with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in what is widely considered to be the first kiss between a black woman and a man. white man on American television.

The plot of the episode is bizarre: the aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the crew of the Enterprise to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens force Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk to kiss. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss under the lustful gaze of the aliens.

The kiss is not romantic. But in 1968, showing a black woman kissing a white man was a bold move. The episode aired just a year after the Loving v. Virginia of the United States Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that less than 20% of Americans approved of such relationships.

As a civil rights and media historian, I was fascinated by the woman at the center of this defining television moment. Casting Nichols, who died July 30, 2022, created possibilities for more creative and socially relevant “Star Trek” storylines.

But just as significant is Nichols’ off-screen activism. She used her role in “Star Trek” to become a recruiter for NASA, where she pushed for change in the space program. Her professional journey shows how the diversity of on-screen castings can have a profound impact on the real world as well.

“A triumph of modern television”

In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry decided to cast Nichols to play Lt. Uhura, a translator and communications officer for the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first black woman to have a continuous co-starring role on television.

The black press was quick to praise Nichols’ pioneering role.

The Norfolk Journal and Guide hoped it would “enlarge its breed’s grip on the tube”.

Ebony magazine featured Nichols on its January 1967 cover and described Uhura as “the first black astronaut, a triumph of modern television over modern NASA”.

Yet the infamous kiss between Uhura and Kirk almost never happened.

After the first season of “Star Trek” ended in 1967, Nichols considered quitting after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her singing career in New York and had always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple.

But at an NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she met Martin Luther King Jr.

Nichols would later recount their interaction.

“You don’t have to go,” King told her. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you have changed the face of television forever. … For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.

King went on to say that he and his family were fans of the show; she was a “hero” to her children.

With King’s encouragement, Nichols remained on “Star Trek” for the full three years of the original series.

Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of the third season. Nichols recalled that NBC executives were watching the filming closely because they were worried about the reaction from Southern television stations and viewers.

After the episode aired, the network received an avalanche of letters from viewers — and the majority were positive.

In 1982, Nichols told the Baltimore African American that she was amused by the attention the kiss had garnered, particularly because her own heritage was “a mix of races that includes Egyptian, Ethiopian, Moor, Spaniard, Welsh, Indian Cherokee and a ‘blonde ancestor with blue eyes or two’.

space crusader

But Nichols’ legacy would be defined by more than a kiss.

After NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols had minor acting roles in two television series, “Insight” and “The DA.” She would also play a madam in the 1974 blaxploitation film “Truck Turner.”

She also began to dabble in activism and education. In 1975, Nichols established Women in Motion Inc. and won several government contracts to produce space and science-related educational programs. In 1977, she was appointed to the board of the National Space Institute, a civilian space advocacy organization.

That year, she gave a speech at the institute’s annual meeting. In it, she criticized the lack of women and minorities in the astronaut corps, challenging NASA to “step down from your ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a dark face – and that is.” a woman”.

Several of NASA’s top administrators were in the audience. They invited her to lead an astronaut recruitment program for the new space shuttle program.

Soon she packed her bags and began traveling the country, visiting high schools and colleges, speaking with professional organizations and lawmakers, and appearing on national television shows such as “Good Morning America.”

“The goal was to find qualified people among women and minorities and then convince them that the opportunity was real and that it was also a duty, because it was historic,” Nichols told the Baltimore Afro-American in 1979. that sense of purpose about it myself.

In his 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura,” Nichols recalled that in the seven months before the recruiting program began, “NASA had received only 1,600 applications, less than 100 of them from women and 35 from candidates from minorities”. But by the end of June 1977, “only four months after we took on our task, 8,400 applications had been received, including 1,649 from women (a fifteen-fold increase) and an incredible 1,000 from minorities”.

Nichols’ campaign recruited several pioneering astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. .

Relentless Advocacy for Inclusion

His advocacy for inclusion and diversity was not limited to the space program.

As one of the first black women to have a major role on television, Nichols understood the importance of opening doors for minorities and women in entertainment.
Nichols continued to push for African Americans to have more power in film and television.

“Until we blacks and minorities become not only the producers, writers and directors, but also the buyers and distributors, we’re not going to change anything,” she told Ebony in 1985. “Until we become an industry, until we control the media or at least say enough, we will always be the drivers and the tap dancers.

This story has been updated from the original version published on April 15, 2021. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/the-story-behind-star-trek-actress-nichelle-nichols-iconic-interracial-kiss-188048.

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