A True Pioneer: Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022) | Tribute

Dr. King went on and on about how much he loved the show, giving Nichols the confidence to tell him she had quit. “I said I was leaving ‘Star Trek,’ and he said ‘you can’t!'” she told the Archive of American Television. “And I felt like that little boy [Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes] “what are you talking about, Dr. Konge?! … he said ‘for the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful …[Black] people who can go into space!'” Lt. Uhura wasn’t technically written as a black role or a female role, so she could easily be replaced by anything, even an alien. She had to stick around to ensure that black history was made. “And I was angry,” Nichols said. “Why me?”

That story alone underscores the importance of Nichols being in the right place at the right time when Gene Roddenberry decided to bring a multicultural future to NBC in 1966. In addition to inspiring a generation to dream of boldly going where no one man has gone before, she worked with NASA to make it possible for more. Her volunteer work with the organization helped recruit black and female future astronauts, including Dr. Sally Ride and Challenger astronauts Dr. Judith Resnick and Dr. Ronald McNair, the last of whom my high school alma mater in Jersey City was renamed for a few years after I graduated. Although she didn’t get to go into space herself, Nichols flew in the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Boeing 747SP, a plane with a telescope that flies 41,000 feet above Earth to observe the stars and planets.

As someone who dreams of being an astronaut and who loves all things NASA, these fictional and real achievements would be more than enough to endear Nichols to me. But here’s a dirty little secret that will reveal the primary reason she has my undying affection: Lt. Uhura wasn’t the first time I saw Nichelle Nichols. Before I ever saw “Star Trek,” I went to see “Truck Turner” at the PIX theater in my hometown.

“Truck Turner” was a 1974 Blaxploitation film starring Isaac Hayes like the titular jumping track and Yaphet Kotto as his primary nemesis. It was directed by Jonathan Kaplan and edited by a future Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn. Kotto and Hayes are big, intimidating men, but their characters are no match for Nichelle Nichols’ Dorinda. Even Kaplan’s camera is afraid to get too close to her, lest she yank it off the crane and throw it! Dorinda runs a stable of sex workers for her main squeeze, Gator, the pimp Truck Turner has been hired to catch to jump bail.

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