Star Trek And MLK – How Martin Luther King Says Representation Matters
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Star Trek And MLK – How Martin Luther King Recognized Representation Matters

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BY January 25, 2022

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Americans remember our greatest civil rights leader who was gunned down in his prime. There are thousands upon thousands of words detailing his legacy, his achievements, and how his struggle continues even to this day. Yet, Comic Years is a blog about loving genre stories and all things geeky, and we have this in common with the great civil rights giant. Recently we touched on how MLK loved the representation in Star Trek in our article about Nichelle Nichols 89th birthday. While we’re sure that Martin Luther King enjoyed the geeky sci-fi stories in Star Trek, he especially recognized the importance of representation in pop culture. Today, we talk an awful lot about “forced diversity,” especially in beloved genre franchises. No story from Star Wars to Masters of the Universe is exempt from this ridiculous discussion.

Before we get into MLK and his history with Star Trek, we have to address the current discourse. Because of outrage grifters on YouTube mining toxic fandom for cash, things that should not be controversial are becoming huge deals. From casting Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengeberg in The Witcher or Leslie Grace in Batgirl, fans express annoyance that these characters are not as originally described. This means “white,” and that’s usually because the stories come from storytellers who also identify that way. Even with this lack of diversity, sci-fi, fantasy, and other genre stories focus often on tales of outcasts, “others,” and thus resonate with anyone who’s felt overlooked by society.

Yet, when it comes to Martin Luther King and his feeling that the representation on Star Trek was important, it’s not just because MLK was a fan. It’s because he knows how powerful these stories are.

Why Martin Luther King Loved Star Trek – Not the Sci-Fi, the Vision of a Future with Representation

MLK and Star Trek, Martin LUther King Jr representation ichell Nichols Lt Uhura Star Trek original series Image via Paramount

Much of what we know about this story comes from Nichelle Nichols herself. The media landscape in the 1950s and 1960s was very different than today. MLK never wasted an opportunity on TV or Radio or in print to talk about his mission, so we don’t have firsthand quotes about his love of Star Trek. Yet, according to Nichols, Star Trek was the only primetime TV series that Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King would let their children watch all because of representation.

In the late 1980s when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was working on The Next Generation, Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast. When she met Nichols, she told her that, as a child, she remembers telling her parents excitedly that a Black woman was on TV and “she ain’t no maid!” But the Enterprise was almost very different, because the woman who played Lt. Uhura was ready to quit. She told Roddenberry that she wanted to leave to go to Broadway, and he was angry. He implored her to stay, saying her character was integral to his vision of the show and the future. He begged for her to take the weekend at least to think about it. And it was the best decision he ever made, because he was about to get help from huge Star Trek fan Martin Luther King.

Nichols told NPR that she was ready to leave Star Trek but only stayed because of MLK and his words:

“And that – on Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan. And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.”

Nichols said meeting MLK left her speechless, but to learn he was a fan of Star Trek? She said she told him that she wished that she was out there with him marching, but he told her not to be. “You are marching,” he said. He told her she was the visualization of what he and other civil rights leaders were fighting for. A person of color in a role of authority whose character was not based on race or subservience. Martin Luther King understood that the representation of Black folks on Star Trek – and Asian folks, women, and even Russians – was crucial to realizing the future he dreamed of.

When Nichols said she was leaving the show, the jovial MLK turned serious and told her she couldn’t leave Star Trek. Martin Luther King said that Roddenberry or the network could replace her with a man or a Stark Trek alien, and the best representation for Black folks on TV ever would be gone.

When Nichols told Gene she would stay, he reportedly thanked MLK. “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said, adding, “Somebody knows where I’m coming from.”

Why MLK Is Right About Representation, and How Much We Still Have to Learn

martin luther king jr MLK Star Trek Representation Michael Burnham Image via Paramount Plus.

So, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there is a lot to reflect on about his “Dream” was deferred, forgotten, and not realized. Yet, I like to think that MLK would at least be happy that Star Trek hasn’t forgotten the importance of representation. Today, the Captain of the franchise’s flagship series is a Black woman. Through casting LGBT actors to play LGBT characters, Star Trek is still fighting for representation. And, sadly, mostly white men are still out here complaining about it.

As I mentioned above the story of Martin Luther King and Star Trek is not just about how our greatest civil rights leader was a down-low geek. Rather it’s that genre fiction can’t help but use these grandiose metaphors of worlds unlike our own to dissect the very real-world problems of being ostracized, discriminated against, or simply not believed in. The mission of genre fiction, like Star Trek, is the mission of Martin Luther King: to dream a world of justice, compassion, and fairness into being.

So many figures from history recognized the power of Star Trek, from MLK to none other than TV Queen Mother Lucille Ball. The real challenge is teaching today’s fans – or the older fans that just forgot – that these stories are about more than whimsy. The people we see represented in these stories reflect our real-world attitudes about them. Hopefully, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we finally learn that lesson for good.

The King Center, founded by Coretta Scott King, continues MLK’s mission and you can help.

What do you think? Are you surprised to learn that MLK loved Star Trek so much? Do you agree with Martin Luther King that representation in Star Trek or other pop culture is important? Share your thoughts, ask your questions, and discussion the morals of these stories in the comments below. Happy MLK Day to everyone from Comic Years.

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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book of superhero short stories, Tales of Adventure & Fantasy: Book One is available as an ebook or paperback from Amazon.

          

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