Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Steve Chawkins writes in the LA Times that actress Nichelle Nichols died of a heart attack on Saturday at 89 in Silver City, New Mexico.
Nichols was cast by Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry as Lt. Nyota Uhura, chief communications officer of the Federation star ship Enterprise and the fourth in the line of command on the vessel. Both for a woman and an African-American, it was an unusual role on network television when the series began airing on CBS in 1966, having been backed by comedian Lucille Ball.
Her character’s name is derived from the Swahili word for “freedom” or “independence,” uhuru, which in turn derives from the Arabic word hurr, free. This term was picked up by 19th century Arab modernists to refer to the new Enlightenment notion of political liberty (hurriyya), but had in medieval times denoted a free person as opposed to an enslaved one. Swahili is spoken in East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania.
Nichols often told the story of how she met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. after having played Lt. Uhura for a year, and mentioned that she was leaving the series for Broadway. (She hadn’t been given a lot of dialogue other than “Hailing frequencies open.”) King remonstrated with her, she said, that she must stay, because Star Trek was the only network show that was depicting African-Americans “as they really are.” She decided to stick with the part. She inspired a generation of African-American actors, including Whoopi Goldberg. Later in life, she became a booster of the NASA space program and of African American women in the program. In 1992, Mae C. Jemison became the first African-American woman to go into space, and she paid homage to Nichols by using the phrase “Hailing frequencies open.”
In Season 3, Episode 10 of Star Trek, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” a scene called for a kiss between Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Nichols. When the studio heads saw the dailies, they freaked out that there might be a backlash in the Deep South. Southern TV stations had been known simply not to air network shows they thought provocative, even if they were part of the network, with all the economic downside that implied from lost advertising revenue.
The Supreme Court had struck down laws against interracial marriage, which was characterized by the ugly term “miscegenation,” in 1967, only a year before. Until then, a white man kissing a black woman in public was a scandal in the South, and some teenagers were sent to reform school for this infraction.
So, Nichols said in her memoir, the studio insisted that they shoot a version of the scene in which the two did not kiss. Shatner flubbed all the takes of this non-kissing version by crossing his eyes, and the executives decided they would just risk Southern outrage with the original take.
In the event, there is no record of any public backlash, and Nichols said they got plenty of enthusiastic fan mail over the episode. It wasn’t the first interracial kiss on television, but it was probably the first substantial kiss between white and Black actors that formed a key plot element in a network prime time show. Young people won’t realize that there used to be only three commercial networks with nation-wide coverage, which split 90% of the US viewing audience among themselves. A really popular show could get 80 million viewers. The signal was received over the air with an antenna or rabbit ears from a local broadcasting station. Things weren’t fragmented the way they are now. Star Trek did not have great ratings compared to competing shows like “Bewitched” and “My Three Sons,” but likely a good quarter of US households were tuned to it when it was on. That would be like something getting 82 million viewers today, a rare event indeed, except for the Super Bowl.
But here’s the thing. The 1967 “Loving” decision of the Supreme Court that abolished state laws forbidding interracial marriage was underpinned in part by the Court’s having found an implicit right to privacy in the US Constitution.
Justice Samuel Alito, a strutting martinet, is hell bent on overturning any argument for a right to privacy, and that was the basis for his Dobbs decision annihilating a woman’s right to an abortion.
The ACLU is petrified that the natural outcome of Alito’s reactionary counter-revolution in the jurisprudence of liberty is the undoing of the Loving decision. See also Miles Mogulescu in the American Prospect on this danger.
So, that famous kiss between Uhuru and Kirk? Alito may have started us down the road of making it illegal, 55 years later.
Alito is the Borg of American jurisprudence, bent on assimilating us all not as unique individuals with a right to our personal privacy, but as serfs to invasive religious bigotry.