Cultural Criticism

Remembering Nichelle Nichols and The Kiss Heard Round The World

Nichols at NASA

Remembering Nichelle Nichols and the Kiss Heard Round The World

African American actress and activist Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on NBC’s Star Trek, died on July 30, 2022. She was 89 years old. The trailblazing actress played an integral role in the Civil Rights movement and as a supporting cast member, bringing both her unique talent and sophisticated sex appeal to the Enterprise’s bridge.

Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History Open Access

Nichols’ tenure on the show occurred during the 1960s–a decade marked by intense racial and social upheaval. 1968 was a trifecta of mounting injustices toward Black Americans, anti-war protests, and sustained anxiety about civil unrest.

That same year Richard Nixon became the 37th president. Nixon beat out his opponent Hubert Humphrey by appealing to the “silent majority” of Americans—mostly white males resentful of social justice activism and federal antipoverty programs.

At the time, there were no other Black actresses in prime time in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” Nichols, who always felt a call to Broadway, wanted to leave the show and follow her passion. However, it was a meeting with the civil rights leader that changed her mind.
King talked to her about representation and how her role as Lt.Uhura served as a role model to many young African American girls, including his own daughter.

Photo Courtesy of Public Domain

It was a good thing that she stayed on. Her role shook things up a bit in what I like to call “the kiss heard round the world. The infamous kiss between Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura was the first interracial kiss that had ever taken place on the small screen.

To watch the interview on YouTube CLICK HERE.

It happened just one year after the passing of the landmark civil rights legislation of 1967, Loving v. Virginia, that ruled the banning of interracial marriage illegal.

Loving v. Virginia Oral Argument – April 10, 1967

Not everyone was ready for it, and Nichols candidly discusses this in her interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

When I watched Star Trek reruns, I always felt a slight tension between Kirk and Uhura, and it seems I was right. Although the kiss was very mild, it serves as a historical marker for where the country was during that time. With television being a medium with widespread reach, it only takes a few nonconforming ideas and images to subvert the status and begin normalizing different stories. As we see from television today, we have gone far beyond the controversy of a quasi-tepid kiss between a white man and a Black woman.

Nichols eventually left the show and dedicated her time to recruiting diverse astronauts, women, and minorities for NASA’s programs.

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