Sunday, January 17, 2016

MLK, Social Justice, and Science Fiction

“We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. , Strength to Love (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be observed tomorrow here in the United States.  This is my favorite holiday.  As I explained in a post last year, this is because it's a holiday about hope for a better future, rather than a holiday of pure remembrance or a religious holiday that can't speak to everyone.
MLK Memorial, Washington, DC

Before I get into the substance of this post, I should note that the bad part of the MLK holiday is that it sometimes encourages people to reduce King to a sanitized, apolitical dreamer, while he was in fact a controversial figure who worked on labor issues and opposed the war in Vietnam in addition to his more famous work in civil rights and his often misunderstood commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence (for more, see "The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King, Jr.").  We tend to forget that that was controversial in his day.  And since I live in a country where nine people were murdered in a church in June 2015 and police are routinely still not indicted for killing black people, even 12-year-old boys like Tamir Rice, I think it's safe to say that we have a great deal of work to do in this country when it comes to racial justice.

MLK and Science Fiction

While thinking about ways to commemorate the MLK holiday on the blog this year, I thought I would try to see what connections, if any, I might find between King and science fiction.  I thought of two such connections.  I remembered that King once talked Nichelle Nichols into staying on as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek.  I also recalled being introduced to the idea of "visionary fiction" in an anthology called Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements; according to this idea science fictional thinking about new ways of being is an essential part of working for justice.
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura

Today science fiction fans all know Nichelle Nichols for her role as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek; it was groundbreaking in 1960's American TV to see a black woman as a professional, competent officer on a star ship (and she was extremely beautiful, of course -- this was TV, after all!).

Fewer people know that Nichols had decided to leave the show after the first season to pursue a Broadway career.  Gene Roddenberry tried, and failed, to talk her out of it.

The next day she met Martin Luther King, Jr..  King said that he was a fan of the show, and that it was one of the few shows he and his wife Coretta allowed their children to watch.  King asked Nichols to stay on the show.  And she did.  And of course she want on to do several movies as well.

King saw that media representation matters.  Showing a black woman in the future as fourth in command of the flagship of the United Federation of Planets creates a conceptual space where such a state of affairs is possible, which, as King and many others have seen, is a powerful message for the present.

You can get the full story from this NPR interview with Nichols.

Social Justice Movements as Science Fiction

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, was one of the more interesting things I read in 2015 (see my full review and how it did on my list of 2015 favorite books).  The editors, brown and Imarisha, coin the term "visionary fiction" to mean a kind of thinking that's essential for any social justice movement.  To put it in terms that MLK might use, working for social justice requires that we get an idea of what the mountain top looks like, how we might get there, and - just as importantly - the paths that could lead us back into the valleys of injustice.

Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee,
one of the mountains in King's "I Have a Dream" speech

To envision Lt. Uhura's future is to imagine a future different from our present in many ways, but one that we might aim for.  Finding the path from our present, with all its injustices and vicissitudes, to a more just and equitable future is what King lived and died for.  As King and many others have noted, science fiction, or at least science fictional thinking, is a key part of struggles for social justice.

So this MLK Day, maybe in addition to the celebrations, days of service, and parades, we should all watch Star Trek and think science fictionally about the future!  Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

I'm striking a pose at the MLK
Memorial, Washington, DC


  1. Thanks for sharing. Star Trek was one of the first science fiction television shows that challenged the way that we look at racial issues. The original series was way ahead of its time and progressive in terms of things related to social justice. I enjoyed this piece.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading. The original Star Trek was definitely ahead of its time, which I suppose is only appropriate for a show that takes place in the 23rd century!