Black History Month: TV’s first interracial kiss launched a lifelong activist career | Accent
On November 22, 1968, an episode of “Star Trek” titled “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired the first interracial kiss on American television.
The episode’s plot is bizarre: The aliens who revere the Greek philosopher Plato use powers of telekinesis to force the Enterprise crew to sing, dance, and kiss. At one point, the aliens force Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to kiss. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens watch lasciviously.
The kiss is not romantic. But in 1968, showing a black woman kissing a white man was a bold move.
The episode aired just one year after the Loving v. Virginia of the United States Supreme Court struck down the state’s laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that less than 20% of Americans approved of such relationships.
As a civil rights and media historian, I was fascinated by the woman at the center of this historic televised moment. The choice of Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura created possibilities for more creative and socially relevant “Star Trek” storylines.
But equally important is Nichols’ offscreen activism. She leveraged her role on “Star Trek” to become a recruiter for NASA, where she pushed for change in the space program. His career arc shows how the diversity of on-screen castings can have a profound impact in the real world as well.
“A triumph of modern television”
In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry decided to choose Nichelle Nichols to play Lieutenant Uhura, a translator and communications officer for the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first African American woman to play a continuing role on television.
The African-American press was quick to praise Nichols’ pioneering role.
The Norfolk Journal and Guide hoped this would “expand his race’s grip on the tube.”
Ebony magazine featured Nichols on its January 1967 cover and described Uhura as “the first black astronaut, a triumph of modern television over modern NASA.”
Yet the famous kiss between Uhura and Kirk hardly ever happened.
After the first season of “Star Trek” ended in 1967, Nichols considered resigning after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her singing career in New York and had always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple.
But at an NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she met Martin Luther King Jr.
Nichols will later recount their interaction.
“You must not go,” King told him. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close… you have 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 her children.
With King’s encouragement, Nichols remained on “Star Trek” for the three years of the original series.
Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of season three. Nichols recalled that NBC executives kept a close watch on the shoot because they were concerned about the reaction from southern TV stations and viewers.
After the episode aired, the network received a flurry of letters from viewers – and the majority were positive.
In 1982, Nichols told the African American from Baltimore that she was amused by the amount of attention the kiss generated, especially because her own heritage was “a mixture of races including Egyptians, Ethiopians, Moors, Spaniards, Welsh, Cherokee Indians and a “blond ancestor with blue eyes or two”.
But Nichols’ legacy would be defined by more than a kiss.
After NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols played minor acting roles in two television series, “Insight” and “The DA”.
She also began to engage in activism and education. In 1975, Nichols created Women in Motion, Inc. and won several government contracts to produce educational programs related to space and science. In 1977, she was appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute, a civilian space defense organization.
That year, she gave a speech at the institute’s annual meeting, “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space or Space: What’s in it for Me?” In it, she criticized the lack of women and minorities in the astronaut corps, challenging NASA to “get off your ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a black face – and she is one. wife “.
Several of NASA’s top directors were in the audience. They invited her to lead an astronaut recruiting 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 lawmakers, and appearing on national television programs such as “Good Morning America. “.
“The aim was to find qualified people among women and minorities and then convince them that the opportunity was real and that it was also a duty, because it was historic,” Nichols told the Afro- American from Baltimore in 1979. “I really had that sense of purpose about it myself.
In his 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura,” Nichols recalled that in the seven months prior to the start of the recruiting program, “NASA had received only 1,600 applications, of which less than 100 were women and 35 candidates from minorities “. But at the end of June 1977, “just four months after we took office, 8,400 applications were received, of which 1,649 were women (a 15-fold increase) and an incredible 1,000 were minorities. “
Nichols’ campaign recruited several pioneer 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.
Continuous advocacy for inclusion
His advocacy for inclusion and diversity was not limited to the space program.
As one of the first black women to take a major role in television, 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 producers and writers and directors, but buyers and distributors, we are not going to change anything,” she told Ebony in 1985. “Until we become an industry, until we control the media or at least have enough to say, we will still be the drivers and the tap dancers.
This is a question which, unfortunately, remains relevant today. In February of this year, UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report found that women and people of color continue to be under-represented as directors and in studio boardrooms. He concluded that “Hollywood studios are leaving money on the table by not developing films and television shows with more diverse cast”.
Fifty years ago, Nichols’ kiss may have broken an important cultural barrier. But as Nichols well knows, the search for opportunities for women and minorities persists to this day – an effort that requires relentless pressure.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Editor’s Note: Although Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk are often credited with the first interracial kiss on television in 1968, others preceded it, including the 1950s series “I Love Lucy,” “Sea Hunt “from CBS in 1959 and” I Spy “from NBC” in 1956.
In each of these, however, a white person and a Hispanic or Asian person hug each other. Uhura and Kirk’s kiss is the first interracial kiss between a black person and a white person on American television. A 1962 British television show of “You in Your Corner” in which a black man and a white woman kiss precedes her. The historic impact of the “Star Trek” kiss on American culture is in no way diminished by these facts.