Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Martin Luther King Day

I thought this was great - and quite appropriate for Martin Luther King Day. :)
Actress Nichelle Nichols tells the lovely story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to remain on Star Trek after she had decided to leave the series for Broadway:
I was going to leave “Star Trek,” and [creator] Gene Roddenberry says, “You can’t do that. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to achieve? Take the weekend and think about it.” He took the resignation and stuck it in his desk drawer….

As fate would have it, I was to be a celebrity guest at, I believe, it was an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills. I had just been taken to the dais, when the organizer came over and said, “Ms. Nichols, there’s someone here who said he is your biggest fan and he really wants to meet you.”

I stand up and turn and I’m looking for a young “Star Trek” fan. Instead, is this face the world knows. I remember thinking, “Whoever that fan is, is going to have to wait because Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader, is walking toward me, with a beautiful smile on his face.” Then this man says “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best fan, your greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans…. We admire you greatly ….And the manner in which you’ve created this role has dignity….”

I said “Dr. King, thank you so much. I really am going to miss my co-stars.” He said, dead serious, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I’m leaving Star Trek,” He said, “You cannot. You cannot!”

I was taken aback. He said, “Don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day – as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now….”

I could say nothing, I just stood there realizing every word that he was saying was the truth. He said, “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because, you see, your role is not a Black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”

At that moment, the world tilted for me. I knew then that I was something else and that the world was not the same. That’s all I could think of, everything that Dr. King had said: The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen.

Come Monday morning, I went to Gene. He’s sitting behind that same dang desk. I told him what happened, and I said, “If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.” He looked at me, and said, “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King, somebody knows where I am coming from.” I said, “That’s what he said.” And my life’s never been the same since, and I’ve never looked back. I never regretted it, because I understood the universe, that universal mind, had somehow put me there, and we have choices. Are we going to walk down this road or the other? It was the right road for me.

TV’s first interracial kiss—between Nichols and William Shatner—also occurred on Star Trek.

America has really changed since then, hasn't it? That didn't just happen. It took brave people like Martin Luther King, Jr. - and many, many others - to make it happen.

I have to wonder about that "God bless" comment from Gene Roddenberry (who was one of us), but it's a great story. There's a video there, too, if you want to hear Nichelle Nichols tell it in a little more detail.

PS. I think I was in love with Nichelle Nichols when I was a kid. I used to think that Captain Kirk was crazy to overlook the beautiful lieutenant who worked right alongside him on the bridge. But then, I suppose there were strict Starfleet regulations about that, huh? :)


Gregg Garthright said...

I remember the first interracial kiss. I always thought it was unfortunate that it was forced by some powerful alien, and not a more natural reaction, like all the other times Captain Kirk kissed a woman (ok, I admit it - I'm a bit of a Trekie).

It's amazing to me how much things have changed since the '60's - you now see mixed race couples on commercials - something that would have been impossible back in the days of Star Trek.

As easy as it is to get discouraged about some of the problems in our society, we should remember that some things are light years ahead of what they were in the "good old days".

Chimeradave said...

Yeah the way I heard it she told Dr. King, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, that she never had any lines except "Hailing frequencies open" and he said something like "It doesn't matter if you never say anything. Just your being there as a part of the crew says enough."

WCG said...

Yup. It's hard to see the progress day by day. But just look back a few decades.

Of course, it's not all progress. It's not all moving forward - and that's never guaranteed, in any case. But whenever I need cheering up, I look back on how far we've come.

WCG said...

John, she was a lieutenant on the bridge of a starship, and she kept her cool, acting professionally, whatever else was going on (by the standards of television, certainly). That was progress for women in general, let alone black women.

So yes, being there as part of the crew was important. She wasn't the focus of the show (that was three white men), but it was still progress, wasn't it?