RIP Nichelle Nichols: Celebrating the Activist and Actress Who Played Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek’

Tribute: Activist and Actress Nichelle Nichols, Who Played LT. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ Dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols costumed as Lieutenant Uhura, 1967. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Some stars shine brighter than others. In the 1960s, Nichelle Nichols was a luminary of the small screen, gracing households around the country as Lieutenant Uhura of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the beloved TV series Star Trek. But more than just a talented actress and singer, Nichols was an inspiring icon as a Black woman starring in a prominent role on a hit series. According to her son Kyle Johnson, Nichols passed away at 89 of natural causes on Saturday, July 30, 2022. Paying tribute to her are her former costars, scientists, and politicians.

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Illinois in 1932, Nichols got her start in musical theater. With an impressive vocal range, she made it all the way to Broadway. “To me, the highlight and the epitome of my life as a singer and actor and a dancer/choreographer was to star on Broadway,” she told NPR in 2011. In fact, stage offers almost drew her away from Star Trek, her iconic celestial role. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced her to stay on in the role.

At an NAACP fundraiser, Nichols said, “He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.' He said, ‘No, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you…to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.' So, I said to him, ‘Thank you so much.'” Nichols was moved by King's admission that he and his wife only let their children watch her performance on Star Trek. Nichols stayed in the role throughout the three seasons of the show, reprising it in the many movies to come.

It was not just Dr. King who viewed Nichols as the pioneer she was. Her role as Lieutenant Uhura was pivotal in the history of television. She was one of the first prominent Black female leads and played a powerful, critical role full of brains and grace. She even shared one of the first interracial kisses on a television show with Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner. Uhura was in fact a name of her own creation adapted from the Swahili word uhuru, meaning freedom.

Nichols was devoted to advancing representation in space too—activism befitting her most famous TV character. She had her own science foundation, Women in Motion, which has even produced a film about her incredible achievements. Nichols also worked with NASA to help them recruit female astronauts. Her work was influential in the careers of the likes of Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Guion Bluford, and others.

Co-star George Takei, Georgia politician Stacey Abrahams, and the National Air and Space Museum are among the many people remembering and paying tribute to the star on the occasion of her passing. However, no one can better describe her life's work than her own son. He wrote on her website, “Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Activist and actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, dies at 89.

Tribute: Activist and Actress Nichelle Nichols, Who Played LT. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ Dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols at GalaxyCon in Minneapolis in 2019. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The legendary performer was devoted to both civil rights and advancing space exploration.

She actively worked with NASA to recruit female astronauts such as Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, and Guion Bluford.

Nichols passed from natural causes according to her son, Kyle Johnson.

h/t: [NPR, CNN]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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