“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson wrote on Nichols’s official website. “Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration.” Nichols was one of the first Black female leads on television, joining Star Trek during its debut in 1966 as Uhura. She briefly considered leaving the show for another role before Martin Luther King Jr. talked her out of it. According to Nichols, King said, “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”
Nichols remained on the original series throughout its three-season run, during which she participated in one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television. Nichols’s Uhura and William Shatner’s James T. Kirk kissed in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and Nichols would later say that the scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.” After Trek, Nichols became an avid NASA spokesperson, advocating for more diversity in the space program. NASA credits Nichols with helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, and Guion Bluford, among others.
Nichols’s Trek castmate George Takei paid tribute to the late actor on Twitter, writing, “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.” See more tributes to Nichols below.