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Dan Morris: Farewell to The Great Lieutenant

A sad loss hit the world with the death of actor Nichelle Nichols last weekend.

Nichelle Nichols speaks after the Space Shuttle Endeavour lands aboard a NASA Boeing 747
Nichelle Nichols speaks after the Space Shuttle Endeavour lands aboard a NASA Boeing 747

For me, she was a shining sci-fi star in one of the shows that shaped my youth. But for many – and quite rightly – she was far more than that.

Famed for her portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, Nichols was one of the first Black women ever featured in a major television series.

In said role she served as an incredibly important ambassador and totem for the Black community as a whole, and particularly for Black women.

In 1967, she had reportedly made the decision to leave the show after its first season, having been tempted by the offer of a role on Broadway. Nichols even went as far as to hand in her resignation to creator and producer Gene Roddenberry, however she was persuaded to retract it during a conversation with none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reportedly, Dr. King told her that she could not give up the role because "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, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers." Dr. King went further, citing that if she were to leave "that door can be closed".

Following her decision to stay on the show, Nichols helped break further symbolic ground in the name of equality, participating in the first interracial kiss on US television. The scene, in which she was joined by her colleague Bill Shatner, is widely regarded as one of the most groundbreaking moments in TV history.

Former astronaut Mae Jemison has been known to cite Nichols' role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut, and indeed, following Star Trek's 1969 cancellation, Nichols helped NASA with a special project aimed at recruiting minority and female personnel to the space agency.

During their fateful conversation, Dr. King compared Nichols' work on Star Trek favourably with the marches of the ongoing civil rights movement, citing her as a vital role model for Black children and other children who would see Black people appearing as equals.

She hadn't realised what an inspiration she could be (and, indeed, already was), nor the part that she could play in the machine of change. But when that was illuminated for her, she embraced it as a responsibility and did everything she could for a cause she believed in with passion, conviction and fortitude.

While saying farewell to Nichols will have upset many people, it has been an incredible week in terms of other inspirational women shining under a well-deserved spotlight.

England's Lionesses proudly stormed to a fantastic victory in the final of the Women's Euro last Sunday, with a sensational 2-1 win over Germany.

Throughout the competition they had already done mighty work in inspiring a new generation of female athletes, yet their lifting of the trophy seems to have truly put stars in the eyes of girls across our region and ignited countless wonderful sparks among them.

And then of course we have the Commonwealth Games, and a particular lady who on Wednesday made history.

Dumfries pensioner Rosemary Lenton has entered the record books by becoming Scotland's oldest ever Commonwealth Games gold medal winner.

Rosemary will turn 73 later this month, and alongside teammate Pauline Wilson, took her nation to victory in the Para women's pairs bowls. She is also believed to be the oldest gold medal winner in the history of the event.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. As a bloke, it's not for me to speak for women in any way, and pronounce on what these fantastic spotlit examples of hard work, perseverance and belief might mean to women in general. I can only say that as a chap who is about to become the father of a baby girl, I'm thrilled that she'll have figures like the Lionesses, Rosemary Lenton and all those who have followed in the footsteps of Nichelle Nichols to look up to.

And to return finally to The Great Lieutenant... With the passing of Nichelle Nichols, we have seen the death of a woman who truly went boldly where none other had gone before. In living long (though not long enough), you helped others to prosper, and society's debt to you can never be repaid.

Thanks Nyota. Farewell, and goodbye.

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