Martin Luther King Jr. was into Star Trek and why that matters

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols says about a half hour into the documentary Trek Nation (2010). She shares her story about meeting Dr. King and learning Star Trek was the only show he and his wife Coretta allowed their kids stay up to watch.

Nichols recounts how in that encounter she told him about her plans to quit the show. Dr. King emphatically replied, “You can’t do that. Don’t you understand, for the first time we are being seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.” She changed her mind and stayed with the show.

Photo: Nichelle Norris at the 2013 Phoenix Comicon.

It’s a great story. But, let’s rewind a bit: Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. Civil Rights Movement leader and one of the greatest visionaries of all time, was a fan of Star Trek. Have you ever considered Dr. King’s work in relation to Gene Roddenberry’s? Before hearing Nichols’ story, I hadn’t.

Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was one of world’s most influential futurists. The universe he created in Star Trek continues to shape how people think about the future. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most influential voice in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. His work elevated into the American mainstream big ideals we continue to value today: equality, diversity, fairness, merit, self-actualization, justice, and more. Dr. King may not have ever called himself one, but he too was a futurist.

While their life paths, risks faced, professions, and approaches to bringing change were very different; Dr. King and Roddenberry both profoundly influenced their contemporaries and “people of the future.” Facing a present filled with big wrongs and difficult challenges, they each projected into our imaginations beautiful aspirations for how things could be. Working in very different spaces, they believed in a better future for all of humanity.

But, Nichols’ story points to something bigger and replicable: a great loop of aspirational futuring. When we engage in futuring, synergies may appear where we least expect them. When we put forward our best hopes for humanity, those hopes influence and inspire others to do the same. As others internalize and give voice to those hopes, our work returns to us, influencing and inspiring us to continue describing and elevating an ideal future state. As this great loop of aspirational futuring resonates, it ultimately shapes what will be.

Photo: The cast from Star Trek poses in front of a prototype of space shuttle Enterprise.

Aspirational and hope-filled visions for the future are essential in facing big challenges. They ignite our imaginations, allow bold concepts to emerge, and propel new ideas through the friction-filled process of becoming real.

What visions for the future and best hopes for humanity are you telling the world right now? Speak up. You never know who will be listening.

2 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr. was into Star Trek and why that matters

  1. On the constructive side: I might point out Nichols played Uhura in the original series (I remember watching the series as a kid, and had to Google to make sure,) and discuss a bit more about her influential role as a black actress, and Roddenberry’s general rep for mixing it up in the show (see also George Takei and Walter Koenig.)

    The bigger story here is that Roddenberry not only changed our view of technology, but also our view of race. King recognized that.

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