Nichelle Nichols of ‘Star Trek’ renown honored for diversity activism

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Original “Star Trek” cast member Nichelle Nichols poses at the premiere of the new television series “Star Trek: Discovery” on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

By AFRO Staff

Nichelle Nichols, the pioneering Black actress of “Star Trek” fame whose TV role and advocacy helped bolster the presence of women and non-Whites in America’s space program, has been honored by NASA.

During what was likely her last appearance at the Los Angeles Comic-Con on Dec. 5, Nichols – who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, the starship Enterprise’s communications officer, in the show’s original run – was bestowed the prestigious NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for her four decades of activism in diversifying NASA’s ranks, People reported. She previously received the space agency’s Public Service Award in 1984.

Though the 88-year-old actress – who was diagnosed with dementia in 2018 – did not make any public statements, she did rise from her wheelchair to accept the award presented by NASA Astronaut Appearance Specialist Denise Young, garnering a standing ovation.

“A life well-lived is reward enough, every day, and my mother’s certainly had a life well lived in many respects,” her son Kyle Johnson, her spokesman, told the audience. “This is an exceptional recognition, and I’m of course very proud of her for all that she’s done, and the value and the meaning of her work. Not just as an actress, but very real and important work that she inspired and enabled people to understand.”

When Nichols debuted on television screens as Lt. Uhura, the Robbins, Ill. native made history as the first African American woman to play a lead character—not to mention a skilled technician—on television. Add in her kiss with costar William Shatner being the first interracial on-camera kiss and Nichols was tearing down several barriers. 

But, she did not initially understand the import of her achievement, she recalled in an interview with EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG. In fact, the triple-threat entertainer (dancer, singer and actress) said she had handed in her resignation after the first season, intending to return to her first love—Broadway. That is, until a fateful meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a party. On sharing her plans to leave, the self-professed “Star Trek” fan and civil rights activist convinced her to rethink, opening her eyes to the wide-spread impact of her representation as a Black, female professional on viewers.

“At that moment, the world tilted for me,” Nichols said.  “I knew then I was something else…that the world was not the same…. All I could think of was everything Dr. King had said: The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen.”

Nichols went on to star in several installments under the “Star Trek” franchise.

Actress Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the sci-fi franchise’s first Black female starship captain in a leading role in “Star Trek: Discovery,” said Nichols’ decision to stay on the series paved the way for actresses like her.

“Nichelle’s legacy can be described as that of sacrificial, heroic contribution,” said Martin-Green during a video tribute at one of many commemorations for Nichols during Comic-Con. “She decided to stay, and ultimately devoted her entire self to the progression of Black people, people of color and women. And she gave everything. She gave her time, her energy. She gave her intelligence, her wisdom, her leadership, and her heart for the betterment of the world and the future. I am only here because of her.”

In 1977, after Nichols gave a speech at the National Space Institute in which she asked, “Where are my people?”—questioning the absence of women and people of color in space programs, NASA recruited Nichols to help them recruit Space Shuttle astronauts. 

Her efforts garnered generations of new—and diverse—aspiring space explorers and scientists, including former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who was the first Black woman to travel into space. In fact, while at NASA, Jemison opened all of her on-air communications with Nichols’ signature Star Trek dialogue: “Hailing frequencies open.”

“It’s really amazing how many different ways people are impacted [by her],” said Dr. Jemison, while offering her tribute to Nichols at Comic-Con. 

“One of the things that you’ve heard everyone say when they talk about meeting and spending any time in Miss Nichelle Nichols’ presence is warmth and generosity. And you feel like you’ve known her, because she is that real, not just relatable, but that important and sentient in our lives.”