The Story Behind ‘Star Trek’ Actress Nichelle Nichols’ Iconic Interracial Kiss

Yves here. Of all the original Star Trek characters, Spock was my favorite. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura had some wonderful moments. I wish the resolution on this clip were better:

Even though the hook for this piece is Nichols’ path-breaking smooch with William Shattner, it gives a fine account of her later, successful role in astronaut recruitment for NASA.

By Matthew Delmont, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History, Dartmouth College. Originally published at The Conversation

On a 1968 episode of “Star Trek,” Nichelle Nichols, playing Lt. Uhura, locked lips with William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk in what’s widely thought to be first kiss between a Black woman and white man on American television.

The episode’s plot is bizarre: Aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the Enterprise crew to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens compel Lt. Uhura and Capt. Kirk to embrace. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens lasciviously look on.

The smooch is not a romantic one. But in 1968 to show a Black woman kissing a white man was a daring move. The episode aired just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that fewer than 20% of Americans approved of such relationships.

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

But just as significant is Nichols’ off-screen activism. She leveraged her role on “Star Trek” to become a recruiter for NASA, where she pushed for change in the space program. Her career arc shows how diverse casting on the screen can have a profound impact in the real world, too.

‘A Triumph of Modern-Day TV’

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

The Black press was quick to heap praise on Nichols’ pioneering role.

The Norfolk Journal and Guide hoped that it would “broaden her race’s foothold on the tube.”

The magazine Ebony featured Nichols on its January 1967 coverand described Uhura as “the first Negro astronaut, a triumph of modern-day TV over modern-day NASA.”

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

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

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

Nichols would later recount their interaction.

“You must not leave,” King told her. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close … you 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 his children.

With King’s encouragement, Nichols stayed on “Star Trek” for the original series’ full three-year run.

Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of the third season. Nichols recalled that NBC executives closely monitored the filming because they were nervous about how Southern television stations and viewers would react.

After the episode aired, the network did receive an outpouring of letters from viewers – and the majority were positive.

In 1982, Nichols would tell the Baltimore Afro-American that she was amused by the amount of attention the kiss generated, especially because her own heritage was “a blend of races that includes Egyptian, Ethiopian, Moor, Spanish, Welsh, Cherokee Indian and a ‘blond blue-eyed ancestor or two.’”

Space Crusader

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

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

She also started to dabble in activism and education. In 1975, Nichols established Women in Motion Inc. and won several government contracts to produce educational programs related to space and science. By 1977, she had been appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute, a civil space advocacy organization.

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

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 legislators, and appearing on national television programs such as “Good Morning America.”

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

In her 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura,” Nichols recalled that in the seven months before the recruitment program began, “NASA had received only 1,600 applications, including fewer than 100 from women and 35 from minority candidates.” But by the end of June 1977, “just four months after we assumed our task, 8,400 applications were in, including 1,649 from women (a fifteen-fold increase) and an astounding 1,000 from minorities.”

Nichols’ campaign recruited several trailblazing 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.

Nichelle Nichols speaks after the Space Shuttle Endeavour landed at Los Angeles International Airport Friday in September 2012. AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Relentless Advocacy for Inclusion

Her advocacy for inclusion and diversity wasn’t limited to the space program.

As one of the first Black women in a major television role, 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 the buyers and distributors, we’re not going to change anything,” she told Ebony in 1985. “Until we become industry, until we control media or at least have enough say, we will always be the chauffeurs and tap dancers.”

This story has been updated from the original version published on April 15, 2021.

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32 comments

  1. Balakirev

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

    A minor point, but Beulah aired on television from 1950 through 1953. Plenty of caricatures, to be sure, but its accomplishments shouldn’t be forgotten–any more than Nichelle Nichols’ should.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beulah_(radio_and_TV_series)

    Reply
    1. Balakirev

      I forgot to mention Amos ‘n Andy, the television version, which ran from 1951 to 1953. Caricatures were present once again, though some black actors of a later day (such as Redd Foxx) credited the series with helping them to believe a chance at tv success wasn’t simply a pipedream.

      Reply
      1. Balakirev

        There was: Oriole, a rather bewildered maid who worked for the family next door to Beulah’s. She regularly came around with her problems. Butterfly McQueen played her in the first season, and the still-underrated Ruby Dandridge in the remaining two seasons.

        Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    Credit should be given to people like Gene Roddenberry who helped fight to let other people like Nichelle Nichols have their chance to shine. Modern audiences forget what a shock it was seeing the bridge crew of Star Trek for the first time, especially having not only a black person but a black women having a responsible job. Most people thought it logical as after all it was the 60s but the staid studio executives were nervous as hell about it. Would you believe that nearly thirty years later when Star Trek Voyager had their first woman captain – Captain Janeway – that the first few days of filming the studio executives were on the set watching Kate Mulgrew like a hawk to see if it was believable? I guess that studio executives never change.

    But I am pleased that Nichelle Nichols turned out to be such a great ambassador to a whole generation of young people. She was a classy women and would have taken the first official interracial kiss on TV in her stride. Probably Roddenberry got away with it by explaining that Kirk was kissing not a black American women but a black African woman. You think that I am joking? Anybody notice that the white girlfriend of Wesley Snipes in the 1998 film “U.S Marshalls” was cast as a Frenchwoman and not an American woman? Ever wonder why?

    But it is good that not only did Nichols not only live long enough to see the changes but know that she helped bring them about. Roddenberry also employed a highly talented script editor named D. C. Fontana at the time. D. C. Fontana’s full name was Dorothy Catherine Fontana but as having a women in such a job also made studio executes nervous, only ever referred to her as D. C. Fontana so they would not know. And you know that I am not making this up.

    Fun fact: Everybody knows the shape of the iconic U.S.S. Enterprise but Roddenberry had to fight for that as well. The studio executives were saying ‘C’mon, baby. Get a cigar shape, stick a few windows in and let’s go.’ but he had his own vision which lives on long after he is gone.

    Reply
    1. digi_owl

      USA is deep down a very conservative people.

      And when it comes to entertainment, doubly so.

      Scifi shows are expensive to make, because it needs a lot of sound stages etc. You can’t just rent some random house and turn that into a set.

      End result is that execs are very skittish about expensive shows that may raise ire.

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      1. Fastball

        More than 75% of Americans favor gay marriage and disapprove of the Supreme Court attempting to overturn it. Similar majorities oppose the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade and favor progressive and socialist economic stances including single payer health care and union representation.

        I’d agree that screen execs are skittish about movies and shows representing minorities but I’d argue that’s because *they* are homophobic, sometimes racist and transphobic, *not* the general public being “deeply conservative”, except in terms of jingoism.

        Reply
      2. ambrit

        Fun fact is that the original ‘Star Trek’ series was produced at Desilu, which was firmly run by Lucille Ball. She authorized the unprecedentedly expensive budgets for the program. ‘Star Trek’ was a major gamble for the production company.
        Much of the “trouble” encountered in the production of the series originated in the network boardrooms in New York.
        I’ve got an autographed copy of “Beyond Uhura” somewhere in the library. Now I’m going to have to take better care of it. I’ve also got a copy of another book about the original ‘Star Trek’ series, “Inside Star Trek” by producers Solow and Justman. It has a somewhat less reverent ‘take’ on the show and the people involved. It was quite a swinging bunch that made the show.
        Stay safe and keep watching the skies.
        The old style: The Thing, ending: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmDqKUEKW_Y

        Reply
  3. Terry Flynn

    Yes Gene fought for such social issues. However there are interviews from close collaborators that present a far less savory image of him such as this – which are corroborated from his sidelining from S2 onwards in TNG. The original video link is sadly not in my saved list, hence this copy, but Roddenberry undoubtedly used his “social progressive” image to attempt to cover up very questionable stuff against Nichelle and other women.

    If you have the patience to watch the video and follow up the links you’ll see he effectively stole royalties from Alexander Courage regarding the TOS main theme. He vetoed Saavik being the sleeper agent in ST6 (despite the fact it would be much better and have huge shock value as well as fitting the character’s backstory) despite fact he had no role in inventing the character and didn’t like her earlier on so we got Valeris – “obviously” the traitor.

    Nichelle and others were partly so great because although they recognised the opportunity to change TV, they also sacrificed a lot to satisfy someone who in this day and age would have his behaviour elicit the same shocked reactions that Joss Wheedon got. Social visionary but absolutely huge hypocrite too. The proof of the pudding is in the eating…. Look at ST:TNG and where he was involved.

    Reply
    1. Dick Swenson

      Star Trek introduced many “hard issues” to TV exposure. There was a program where Tasha Yar (the Security Officer before Worf) seduced Data. Later episodes didn’t avoid sexual scenes.

      Reply
  4. David in Santa Cruz

    Bless you for sharing this light diversion. My family watched every broadcast of the original Star Trek series and it doubtlessly affected my young ideas of how adults should behave toward one another.

    Dr. King correctly saw Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura as exemplary of the future as we would want to see it. She was perfectly cast by Gene Roddenberry and I’m grateful that she so graciously accepted that role for the rest of her life.

    Reply
    1. Questa Nota

      Saw the original series and then recordings a time or two years later.

      Always enjoyed Nichelle Nichols as she was a good actor. Competent, interesting character and pretty. She provided a good counterpoint and addition to the inspired casting. The kiss seemed to my young self as natural and overdue.

      Reply
  5. Alice X

    Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race

    by Jeffrey B. Perry at Black Agenda Report

    The Invention of the White Race, Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New Expanded Edition, Verso Books, November 2012) ISBN: 9781844677696

    The Invention of the White Race, Vol. II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (New Expanded Edition, Verso Books, November 2012) ISBN: 9781844677702

    “White identity had to be carefully taught.”

    “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”

    “The ‘white race’ was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).”

    Verso Books:

    The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1 Racial Oppression and Social Control
    by Theodore W. Allen Introduction and notes by Jeffrey B. Perry

    Reply
      1. Alice X

        I’m glad you found it of interest. I put up a reply earlier with links to summaries by T. W. Allen but it seems to have gone off to Saturn (speaking of Star Trek). I won’t repost in case it’s on a round trip. They can be found by the googlazon. :-)

        Reply
      2. Alice X

        It is irrefutable IMHO that race is a social construct. Allen’s work details how the construction progressed in the US. There are many other areas to be considered, of course.

        Reply
    1. ewmayer

      I can still hear Eartha’s wonderfully distinctive voice as Catwoman seductively purring out a line to Adam West’s Bat-Man to effect of “…take me into your muscular custody.” :)

      More generally regarding the subject of this NC piece – Hollywood SciFi of the late 50s and early 60s did sometimes feature interracial casts in an “international mission to explore” context, for instance the earnestly intended 1960 silly-fest 12 to the Moon features Japanese actress Michi Kobi as the ship’s doctor, middle eastern actor Muzaffer Tema sharing a passionate kiss with Swedish Anna-Lisa, as well as black American actor Cory Devlin as the navigator Dr. Asmara Markonen.

      The earlier Star Trek episode Space Seed also features what some regard as an interracial kiss, between Ricardo Montalban’s Khan and Madlyn Rhue’s character, but the idea of “white” and “Latin” relationships was not terribly controversial – look at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who was her husband both in real life and on TV. (There is a nice bit of symmetry in their production studio Desilu being the one which brought Star Trek to TV.)

      French-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen also featured in several Hollywood movies as the romantic interest of a white male star, before her memorable role in the 3rd-season Star Trek episode Elaan of Troyius. But white men marrying Asian women had become fairly normalized by the 1960s, in no small part as a result of the many American GIs who married Japanese women during the post-WW2 U.S. occupation of that country – not going to inline a link because more than one inline link is guaranteed to trip Skynet, but see e.g. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33857059, which has some interesting history about that:

      About 30,000 to 35,000 Japanese women migrated to the US during the 1950s, according to Spickard.

      At first, the US military had ordered soldiers not to fraternise with local women and blocked requests to marry.

      The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed American servicemen who married abroad to bring their wives home, but it took the Immigration Act of 1952 to enable Asians to come to America in large numbers.

      When the women did move to the US, some attended Japanese bride schools at military bases to learn how to do things like bake cakes the American way, or walk in heels rather than the flat shoes to which they were accustomed.

      But many were totally unprepared.

      Generally speaking, the Japanese women that married black Americans settled more easily, Spickard says.

      “Black families knew what it was like to be on the losing side. They were welcomed by the sisterhood of black women. But in small white communities in places like Ohio and Florida, their isolation was often extreme.”

      So yes, Uhura-Kirk was truly groundbreaking in being the the first black/white kiss on US TV.

      Reply
  6. Mikerw0

    I strongly recommend reading this alongside one of the recent Obits for Bill Russell. These people had unbelievable internal moral compasses and chose to do the right thing even when the going got tough.

    Reply
  7. Anthony G Stegman

    I’ve often felt that Africans are the original homo sapiens, and if given a fair chance would achieve greatness in every facet of life. The evidence for this to-date is quite ample, with Nichelle Nichols being only one small example. There are countless others in sports, dance, music, science, the list is long. For an African to be considered three-fifths of a man (or woman) is utterly preposterous.

    Reply
  8. Joe Well

    Worth mentioning Robert Lawrence, the first (non-fictional) Black astronaut, who died tragically.

    Also, the less uplifting story of Ed Dwight, who almost became the first Black astronaut but was pushed out by none other than Chuck Yeager.

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    1. Tom Bradford

      Extraordinary! I recall as a teenager watching ‘Star Trek’ on BBC in the UK around 1970 and to my mates and I the fact that Uhura was black, let alone a woman, was no more remarkable to us than that the Engineer was obviously a Scot – as we all know the Scots were natural engineers – and that the obviously little America that was the ‘Enterprise’ gladly accepted and valued its representative Russian, Chekov. It was all part of the promised, inclusive, clean-cut and all-embracing future that lay just beyond the horizon for us, once we had all embraced the American dream.

      Reply
    2. james oberg

      “Also, the less uplifting story of Ed Dwight, who almost became the first Black astronaut but was pushed out by none other than Chuck Yeager.” == That’s a common myth, but there’s no evidence for it — Dwight ranked 8th out of 16 in Yeager’s test pilot school in 1963, and NASA only selected #1 and #2. At 5′-3″ Dwight was also several inches too short to safely fly the Apollo Lunar module and would have needed a footstool to fully measure up.

      Reply
      1. Joe Well

        Ed Dwight claims that he was deliberately marginalized by Yeager, who ordered his peers to treat him like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. You try doing your best under those circumstances.

        Reply
    3. james oberg

      ” Ed Dwight, who almost became the first Black astronaut but was pushed out by none other than Chuck Yeager.”

      Even Dwight never claimed that resentment-porn myth.

      Accusations against Chuck Yeager seem based on third-hand hearsay, never confirmed [and denied by both Yeager and by black pilots who had flown with him], and even Dwight recently clarified Yeager was not responsible for his non-selection [confirmed also by curator Kathleen Lewis in the recent Smithsonian special ‘Black in Space’]. Not ever reported is that at 5’03” Dwight was three inches below the minimum design height for Lunar Module crewmen [the pilots flew it standing up looking through a face-level window and using roof-mounted optical navigation instruments]. Soon after Dwight’s experiences, black pilot Robert Lawrence went through the same schools and was officially picked for astronaut status [but tragically killed by a mistake by his student pilot]. In today’s over-heated cultural climate, any and all stories relevant to current disputes need to be carefully assessed for any political spin, sad to say. Dwight’s authentic contributions emerge clearly, both in space history and in art, without need for mass media dramatization, exaggeration, and even fictional elaboration.

      Edward J. Dwight [March 2, 2020] == “I never accused Chuck Yeager of causing my failure to fly in space. It was the political environment of the day that transcended anything that Chuck Yeager had an impact on.”
      https://www.facebook.com/NPR/posts/10159027154926756

      Smithsonian “Black in Space” documentary, Feb 23, 2020, curator Cathleen Lewis: “We don’t know if Chuck Yeager derailed Dwight’s career. And historians searched for evidence, and haven’t found it.”

      https://youtu.be/I7jJ8jEh608
      at time 10:58

      . Here’s a Yeager profile by a black pilot who flew with him:
      http://victoriayeager.com/emmett-hatch/

      Reply
  9. Mikel

    “The episode’s plot is bizarre: Aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the Enterprise crew to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens compel Lt. Uhura and Capt. Kirk to embrace. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens lasciviously look on…”

    Yeah, it’s bizarre because Capt. Kirk usually didn’t have to be forced to kiss anything in any galaxy.
    He was an intergalatic lothario…not very particular.

    Reply
  10. Acacia

    Two minor points…

    First, I found it interesting that Uhura’s background was emphasized at the very beginning of the series, in the first episode The Man Trap, when the shape-shifting creature assumes the likeness of somebody familiar, and addresses her in Swahili. She is surprised, but answers in Swahili. I think this may(?) have been one of the few times in the original series that another Earth language was spoken.

    Next, Memory Alpha quotes Nichols’ book about the kiss:

    Also according to Nichols, NBC was afraid of the kiss because some stations in the South could decide not to air the episode because of it. Finally, an agreement was made: to film two versions of the scene – one where Kirk and Uhura kissed, and one where they did not. They filmed the first version (with the kiss) successfully, then she and Shatner deliberately flubbed every take of the latter, making it unusable, and leaving the kiss intact. Nichols writes, “The next day they screened the dailies, and although I rarely attended them, I couldn’t miss this one. Everyone watched as Kirk and Uhura kissed and kissed and kissed. And I’d like to set the record straight: Although Kirk and Uhura fought it, they did kiss in every single scene. When the non-kissing scene came on, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable. The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode. Finally, the guys in charge relented: ‘To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.’ I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.” (Beyond Uhura).

    I always liked this little twist about Shatner and Nichols taking control of the scene, to force the hand of the series producers.

    Reply

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