Though Nichols sang and performed in musicals in the early ’60s, it was her portrayal of the USS Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura that ultimately brought her to fame. Uhura was celebrated as among the first Black characters on American television not in a menial role, and in fact was a respected, equal member of Star Trek‘s ensemble cast.
As such, Nichols became a powerful figure of positive Black representation, inspiring people such as NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and actor Whoopi Goldberg — as well as becoming the
Famously, Nichols didn’t realise the impact she already had early in Star Trek‘s run, and considered leaving for a role on Broadway when the series was still in its first season. Fortunately, she was dissuaded upon meeting civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King at a fundraiser, who approached her as an enthusiastic fan and stressed how important her work was in breaking boundaries. After learning that she intended to leave the show, he personally convinced her to stay.
“We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves,”
Nichols ultimately stayed on Star Trek and continued to inspire viewers for all three seasons. This included
Nichols continued to look to the stars even after Star Trek‘s run ended, volunteering with a NASA Astronaut Corps project to hire marginalised employees. This project resulted in the recruitment of America’s first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride, as well as its first Black astronaut, Colonel Guion Bluford.
She further served on the board for the then-called National Space Institute, a non-profit space advocacy group, and was involved in leadership of the Space Cadets of America. For her work, Nichols was awarded
NASA is among those paying tribute to Nichols today, remembering her as an inspirational role model and symbol of a brighter future.
Rest in peace, lieutenant.