Margaret Weitekamp explains the intersection between civil rights and “Star Trek”

Caroline Gordon / THE GATEPOST

By Robert Johnson Jr.
Arts and Features Editor

After the harsh impact of a government shutdown-inflicted delay, the “Moon Landing in Context” series was finally able to bring Margaret Weitekamp to Framingham State University to speak to a packed audience in the McCarthy Center Forum Sept. 26.

Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which is currently undergoing renovations.

She was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities, obtained a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and a master of arts and Ph.D. in history from Cornell University.

Her talk, “More Than ‘Just Uhura’: Understanding Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, Civil Rights, and Space History,” dealt with Gene Roddenberry’s initial proposal for the TV franchise, as well as the tropes employed within the showand the cultural impact it had on society.

“As a curator, what you’re doing, always, is trying to balance both the history and the artifact form,” Weitekamp said. 

Before getting into the subject matter at hand, Weitekamp described her work at the National Air and Space Museum, asking the audience about the National Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center locations she works.

“What I do, in addition to being a chair of the department, is that I work with what we call our ‘social and cultural artifacts.’”

She then provided samples of her interest in “Star Trek.” The particular pieces of space exploration memorabilia she focuses on, comprising of medallions from early American space missions, mission patches, and commercially-available science fiction pieces.

“This collection really speaks to the popular culture of space flight in material objects,” Weitekamp said. “It’s how ordinary people interacted with space flight – most people don’t get to be an astronaut or an aerospace engineer, they don’t get to build and design and fly things in space – but many people have played with ‘Star Wars’ action figures.”

Weitekamp asked the audience if they have ever watched “Star Trek.”

“‘Star Trek’ is a really important franchise. It became a really powerful cultural phenomenon,” Weitekamp said.

She gave the audience a brief timeline of the development of the “Star Trek” franchise, starting with the original 1966-69 series on NBC and leading up to upcoming projects, such as “Star Trek: Picard.”

“So, it is a cultural phenomenon I would argue that, in its own right, that merits study and a place on the national stage – consideration at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum,” Weitekamp said.

“In addition, this show and the people associated with the show have really been an agent of social change. … It both reflected the issues of the time and really tried, especially, to make changes and, in many ways, we can see the beginnings of that, the roots of that in this mixed-sex, racially integrated, multinational, space flight crew.”

Weitekamp explained the genesis of “Star Trek” as a franchise, making particular note of Lucille Ball’s role in the production of the series with her company, Desilu Productions.

“She was one of the few women in Hollywood who owned her own studio, and when she was greenlighting ‘Star Trek,’ that was, really, her decision,” she said.

Beyond Ball, Weitekamp highlighted Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who famously portrayed Lt. Uhura in the series.

“Lt. Uhura plays the fourth-in-command. She’s the communications officer, she’s a presence in every episode on the bridge of the Enterprise and in this, really becomes a very significant role to have someone who is an African American actress who is not playing a maid, who is not playing a servant, but who is a heart of this crew and really has a significant role,” Weitekamp said.

In explaining to the audience the importance of Uhura in a male-dominated genre such as science fiction, Weitekamp showed the audience the first two strips from “Buck Rogers” from 1928.

“One of the things that I’m looking at in my book project is that I’m really interested in this American form of space science fiction,” Weitekamp said. “I think it is so ever-present that we don’t see it and we’ve never named it – I’m calling it the Buck Rogers’ archetype.”

“Buck Rogers awakens, as you may know, from being knocked out in a mine near Pittsburgh, comes out of the mine hundreds of years later and encounters a very capable, independent woman, which, clearly, indicates that we’re in the future – this cannot be the present, as you have a woman who is acting in this way.”

She talked about criticisms of the Vietnam War and the Apollo 11 mission, as well as descriptions of the roles of African American activists who used the space program as a point of contention to bring attention to their cause.

“In the midst of all of this, you have Nichols, who is playing this role on television,” Weitekamp said. “She was getting a lot of attention in the black press, so while she was getting a lot of public attention, she was starting to question whether ‘Star Trek’ was the right choice for her.”

While she described the significance of Uhura’s lack of a first name, which, to her, indicated “an underdeveloped character,” she told the audience of a story involving Nichols and Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser she attended, after telling Roddenberry she wanted to “quit the show.”

“While she was there, one of the organizers came over to her and said that ‘someone here is a fan of yours’ … and she turned around and it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Weitekamp said.

In King’s interaction with Nichols, he told her “‘Star Trek’ was one of the shows he and Coretta Scott King really enjoyed letting their children watch, because it was a vision of racial integration working.”

In spite of the praise, Nichols was still determined to deliver the sad news she gave to Roddenberry, but King refused to let it slip.

Weitekamp echoed King’s proposal for Nichols to stay on the show – “‘Oh, no, no, you cannot. You simply cannot. If you let that door close, who knows how long it’ll be before it opens again?’”

King’s suggestion was a successful one, to the point where Nichols finished the third season and the remainder of “Star Trek,” eventually becoming a staple of “Star Trek” fan conventions in the mid-1970s.

On top of that, Weitekamp informed the audience of Nichols’ organization – Women in Motion, Inc. – which assured women, especially African American women, that “There’s Space for Everyone,” as per the organization’s slogan.

“She really should be celebrated,” Weitekamp said, “not only for embodying this path-breaking, fictional character, but also for really making real change for women, for African Americans, for all of those who are participating in the space program. 

“Her actions, rooted in her Civil Rights activism, fundamentally changed how NASA thought about its staffing on spacecraft and on the ground, and that is an extraordinary, important context for understanding the space program,” Weitekamp said.