Star Trek and the Civil Rights Movement

The year 1966 was a turbulent time in American history. The civil rights movement, which began in earnest in 1954, continued more than a decade later. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War continued to escalate, as President Lyndon Johnson authorized additional troops, bringing the total from 180,000 to more than 250,000, as well as the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, prompting Martin Luther King, Jr., to begin speaking out against the war as well as racial injustice. In the midst of this, an ambitious science fiction television show premiered: Star Trek.

Star Trek was unlike anything else on television at the time. Set at some indeterminate date several centuries in the future, the crew of the Starship Enterprise was not only multiracial, everyone was equal, regardless of the color of their skin; the ship’s communications officer was not only a black woman: she was also fifth in seniority in the ship’s chain of command!

In what has become a famous and oft-repeated story, Nichelle Nichols, who played that communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, was considering leaving the show after its first season when she met Martin Luther King, Jr., at an NAACP event. She later recounted that he convinced her to stay, telling her that he was a fan of both the show and of her. “This is the only show,” Nichols later recalled that King told her, “that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch.”

In Star Trek’s third season, the series made history by becoming one of the first to have an interracial kiss, between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” While the script originally had the kiss between Uhura and the Vulcan first officer, Commander Spock, Shatner, the star of the series, insisted that, “if anyone’s going to kiss [her], it’s going to be me!” Network executives, nervous about how such a scene would be received in the Southern states, demanded that alternate takes be filmed where the actors come close, but do not actually kiss. In response, Shatner made faces and crossed his eyes at the camera, ensuring that none of those takes could be used. Many stations in the South refused to carry the episode.

With a single, notable exception, Star Trek was not typically overt about the subject of racism, in part, perhaps, because of concerns over stations refusing to carry the show, as was the case with “Plato’s Stepchildren.” Also in the third season, however, in the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” the series took on the subject with its typical allegory and metaphor, using alien cultures as a stand-in for the topic being addressed. In “Battlefield,” the Enterprise encounters a pair of aliens locked in a millennia-long war with one another. The reason for their conflict leaves Captain Kirk dumbfounded.

BELE: It is obvious to the most simple minded that Lokai is of an inferior breed.

SPOCK: The obvious visual evidence, Commissioner, is that he is of the same breed as yourself.

BELE: Are you blind, Commander Spock? Well, look at me. Look at me!

KIRK: You’re black on one side and white on the other.

BELE: I am black on the right side.

KIRK: I fail to see the significant difference.

BELE: Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side.

The two sides, we learned by the end of the episode, had completely annihilated all life on their world during the millennia in which Bele chase Lokai, who had led a resistance movement against the regime that Bele represented, as that government had systematically oppressed and exploited those born with the opposite pigmentation. The message of the episode was clear, and unusually blatant for Star Trek.

This episode aside, Star Trek typically kept to a more subtle approach in regards to addressing racial inequality: it simply did not exist in the future that Star Trek represented, and everyone was judged on their merits, rather than their pigmentation. Many of the crew members seen aboard the Enterprise, established time and again to be among humanity’s best and brightest, were people of color. Brilliant scientists and senior officers, who once even sat in judgment of Captain Kirk on a court martial, were a cross-section of humanity: not only white, but also black, Asian, and Native American.

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