Can You Guess Martin Luther King’s Favorite Show?

Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary

Star Trek, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, broke racial barriers with its cast — which included an African-American and an Asian  — and introduced the world to new technology. Courtesy photo.

WASHINGTON — As the iconic science fiction franchise “Star Trek” celebrates its 50th anniversary, America is in many ways living in a Star Trek world. From handheld “communicators” to a multiracial command crew, “Star Trek” propelled the world into the 21st century.

The series introduced the world to talking computers, doors that opened upon approach, wireless, handheld communication devices that allow people to see and talk to each other from distant places and also wireless headsets.

And did you know the Rev. Martin Luther King was a huge fan and was responsible for one of the actors not quitting the show? 

The "communicator, "a device the Star Trek crew commonly used to talk
with each other is widely seen as the precursor to the cell phone. Courtesy photo.

Their gadgets used on Star Trek are mirrored across today’s technology landscape. Handheld communicators used by the crew are precursors of the cell phones we have now used for nearly two decades.  Lt. Uhura’s, communications officer on board the Enterprise, sported a wireless communication headset, decades before Bluetooth technology was invented.  

 The automatic opening doors, unheard of in 1967, are common in nearly every big box store in America.

According to Dr. Charles Kim, an electrical engineer and computer science professor at Howard University, these gadgets were only made possible by the development of micro computing processors in the 1980’s.

“The biggest breakthrough, was combining software power and powerful, miniaturized computing processors together,” Kim said. “This is something we could not do before. Now everywhere small chips can do anything you want.”. 

Star Trek crew members were also seen talking to their computers and communicating through live video transmissions. Capt. Kirk was able to research subjects through a mechanism much like Apple’s Siri.

Even today there is a $10 million competition to build a handheld device that can diagnose a number of diseases and vital signs. Sounds like the Tricorder used by crew members of Star Trek.

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and at the beginning of the organized push for more inclusion for women, Star Trek aired programing showing a racially and culturally diverse crew, even as programing was mostly all-white.  An African American, an Asian, a Russian and even the alien Spock were among the command crew. 

Star Trek featured the first televised kiss with William Shatner
as Capt. Kirk and Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura. Courtesy photo.

Additionally, women were featured in leadership, such as actress Majel Barrett as the first executive officer, second in command to Capt. Kirk, and African-American Nichelle Nichols as Lt.  Uhura, fourth in command to Kirk.

Later, women would appear as admirals and captains commanding their own ships.

According to Howard University’s African American Studies chair, Dr. Greg Carr, non-white casting was a part of Gene Rodenberry’s idea since the shows inception.

 “It was paradigm shifting set of political choices,” Carr said. “Even the whiteness was complicated. Including the Ensign [Pavel] Chekov. The show aired during the cold war, so when you put a Russian on the deck of the enterprise, they were making a statement on a global scale,” said Carr.

Lt. Uhura’s name is a clear sign of the shows progressive diversity, Car said.

 “To name her the Swahili word for ‘freedom’ was a signal to the Black Power Movement,” said Carr.  “After that, every iteration of Star Trek has non-white races.”

According to an interview with NPR News, Nichols almost quit Star Trek, until the King, who told her he was her biggest fan, convinced her to stay with the show during a cocktail party in which they were both invited.

In the interview, Nichols recalled King saying to her, “You are reflecting what we are fighting for.”

He went on to say, she recalled, “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don’t see it on television until now.'”

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, said the Rev. Martin Luther King
convinced to stay on the show when she considered quitting.   He told her,
she was an important role model.  NASA later used her to recruit astronauts.

King also told Nichols that because of the show’s diversity, Star Trek was the only show he and wife Coretta would allow their children to stay up late to watch, even though it was past their bedtime.

Other celebrities, like Whoopi Goldberg, also recognized the show’s diversity in their childhood. When Star Trek: The Next Generation aired in the late 80’s, Goldberg wanted a role. She felt that prior to Star Trek, there were no African Americans in science fiction.   

Aside from having a command crew of different nationalities, the barrier breaking series is credited as the first American network television series showing an interracial kiss. In an episode airing in 1968, Nichols and William Shatner, who played Capt. Kirk, are seen sharing a kiss.

Though television network, NBC, ordered a version of the scene where the actors faked the kiss, the take looked too “corny,” Nichols said in her autobiography. In the autobiography Nichols claims the episode was received well. “We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever, all of it very positive,” Nichols writes, in the autobiography.

In truth, however, some television stations in the South refused to air it. 

Star Trek: the Next Generation, the next iteration of the original series, contiuned the theme of diversity in race and gender among the crew and staff. Courtesy photo.