Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the towering figures of the 20th century, known for his incredibly important contributions to the civil rights movement. His writings and activism are studied, discussed and dissected by students and scholars to this day, with many world leaders citing King as a major source of inspiration for their own journeys.
A major part of King’s legacy is also his unmistakeable impact on American culture, including many books and films that have been made about his political and personal life. Ranging from Ava DuVernay’s definitive Selma to the delightfully subversive appearance on The Boondocks, King remains a vital part of the discourse around race and modern America.
During his lifetime, King was also interested in popular culture, especially because of the many racist depictions and caricatures present everywhere. That’s exactly why King loved one particular television show because it showed him that positive representations were possible too and it left a deep impact on his mind.
That show was none other than the original Star Trek which debuted in 1966 and has become an indispensable part of popular culture since then. However, that wasn’t the case back then and the show was actually cancelled after a few seasons due to low ratings and a lack of general interest from audiences in the US.
King was among the people who absolutely loved the show and in fact, it was the only show that his own children were allowed to watch late at night. This revelation became public knowledge when the show’s Nichelle Nichols spoke about her intentions of leaving the show after the first season itself in order to return to the theatrical productions.
Thankfully, her “biggest fan” – King – came to intervene and tried to explain just how important the work she was doing was to the Black community. According to Nichols, King said: “You are our image of where we’re going, you’re 300 years from now, and that means that’s where we are and it takes place now. Keep doing what you’re doing, you are our inspiration.”
King was absolutely right since many scholars have noted that Nichols was the first Black woman to have such a major role in an American TV production. Nichols decided to listen to King’s advice and actually stayed on as a part of the production.
“Star Trek was one of the only shows that [King] and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch,” she recalled. “And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face. And he said, ‘Don’t you understand for the first time we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.'”