By Joseph Orosco (January 22, 2019)
By now, a lot of people have heard the story of how Star Trek was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite TV show.
It was, according to Nichelle Nichols, the only program he allowed his children to watch because it portrayed African Americans living in a future where they were treated equally and with dignity and respect. He believed that this representation was an important image for young Black people to see and he urged Nichols not to leave the show. (She stayed and her role had tremendous impact—it encouraged Whoopie Goldberg to seek her role as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and inspired Mae Jemison to become the first African American female astronaut. Soniqua Martin Green has recently said that Nichols motivated her as the star of the most recent Star Trek series Discovery).
It’s interesting to speculate how Star Trek might have influenced King’s thinking. Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) premiered in September 1966. This was after the two big legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was also a year after Watts burned and the same year race riots broke out in Cleveland and Omaha. King had moved to Illinois at this point to extend his organizing into urban issues in the North, including unemployment, housing discrimination, and poverty. He had started to think about the effects of the Vietnam War and how it robbed people of life and the means the sustain themselves. It was a particularly difficult time for him politically, emotionally, and spiritually. How did a science fiction story about human beings living in the 23rd Century–in which war, hunger, racism, and poverty had been overcome–affect his sense of hope for the future and what was possible for humanity?
It’s not a far fetched idea to think Star Trek touched King’s imagination. We know that he was a fan of speculative fiction from his earliest days—and we know that his wife Coretta was partly responsible for stoking his creativity along this path.
When they were first dating in 1952, Coretta gave King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward. She instructed him that she wanted him to read it and return to tell her his thoughts about it. Bellamy’s book, written in the 19th century, imagines what a socialist United States would look like in the year 2000 (free medical care and unemployment benefits for everyone!).
In an amazing and touching note, the 23-year old King writes to his future wife and tells her how much he enjoyed the book—so much so that he admits he wants his future ministerial work to be guided by the kind of vision of progress hinted at in it—a world free of war, with a better distribution of wealth and resources, and solidarity instead of racism. He admits that he agrees with Bellamy that capitalism has no future for humanity but he worries what revolutionary socialism can justify in terms of violence. For the next sixteen years, he would reflect and refine his thinking on these subjects, leading him to not only imagine the Promised Land, but also to the devise the organizational strategies and policies—the Poor People’s Campaign, universal basic income, demilitarization—to try and get there.
Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have given us this notion of visionary fiction in their collection of stories Octavia’s Brood:
Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice…Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. (p. 4)
I would argue that some of King’s works, such as the “I have a dream” speech and his idea of the Beloved Community are verging on visionary literature in this sense. As the King Center puts it:
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
All in all, King’s vision of the future for humanity is a clear example of the power of utopian speculative fiction, and Star Trek, in particular, to nourish an imagination in the pursuit of justice.