Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?
[Note: This is an update to an article I posted one year ago today. Read on to learn about several scenes I’ve come across in the past year that are even stronger contenders for TV’s first interracial kiss. Also: GIFs of all the kisses being discussed!]
On November 22, 1968, exactly 46 years ago today, NBC aired the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, in which William Shatner’s Captain Kirk kissed Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura and they made TV history. Or did they?
Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that this episode depicted TV’s first interracial kiss, which was all the more historically significant considering the civil rights struggles of the time. Over the years, I’ve seen various books and articles and blog posts assert that the episode was highly controversial in its original airing, with some NBC affiliates (usually only identified as being in “the south”) refusing to air the episode, sponsors threatening to pull their ads, and viewers subsequently responding with an avalanche of hate mail. Given the times, it certainly sounds plausible enough, right?
Being the child of an interracial couple myself, I’ve long wondered what actually went down back then. Figuring that an episode that provoked such strong reactions must have made news at the time, I decided to dig through online archives of newspapers, books, and various periodicals to see what the media was saying about it in November of 1968.
Alas, I found virtually no mention of the episode being any sort of milestone or noteworthy event at the time it aired, or even for many years afterwards.
Take Ebony magazine, for instance: it didn’t mention Star Trek at all until the following February, when it published a lengthy feature profiling most of the black actors on TV during the 1968-1969 season, including Nichelle Nichols. But it never mentioned the kiss. Somehow, Ebony, of all magazines, didn’t find the supposed first kiss between a white actor and black actress on primetime TV to be worthy of note.
As it turns out, the first references in the media to Star Trek having “TV’s first interracial kiss” don’t show up until over a decade later. And yet, the assertion was pretty much taken at face value, and by the early 1990s, the idea of this kiss being the “first” was ingrained enough into popular culture for both Shatner and Nichols to talk about it at length in both of their memoirs.
They each tell a slightly different tale: Shatner describes how NBC executives were afraid that some of their affiliates might refuse to air “Plato’s Stepchildren”, and wanted to remove the kiss completely, so they compromised and filmed it in such a way that you never see Kirk and Uhura’s lips touching. Shatner even writes that “the widely held assumption that Star Trek features the first interracial kiss in the history of television is absolutely untrue,” due to the fact that their lips never touched, though Nichols insists in her memoir that they did kiss for real.
In her version, the network instead demanded the filming of alternate takes where the two actors never kissed at all, and so Shatner goofed off in every attempt at filming those takes, forcing them to use the shot of them kissing that we see in the finished episode.
While Shatner’s account appears the most accurate upon viewing the actual scene, I find both stories easy to believe. There’s a long, documented history of skittish network executives and censors meddling in the creative affairs of TV shows, particularly when it comes to matters of sexuality. I have no reason to doubt that NBC feared backlash from affiliates, sponsors, and of course the viewers over Kirk and Uhura’s kiss.
However, that’s the network’s reaction. The anecdotes don’t say much about the actual public reaction to the kiss, leading some to mistakenly believe there was massive outrage over a white man kissing a black woman on TV. Casual fans today might be under the impression the episode resulted in boycotts, death threats, and people marching in the streets, but the contemporary record tells a different story:
On a Star Trek episode this fall, William Shatner, a white actor, kissed Nichele [sic] Nichols, a black actress.
“There were no repercussions that I know of,” Miss Nichols says. “A lot of my friends congratulated me, because it was the best part I had on the series so far, but that’s all.”
This January 1969 article was syndicated in several newspapers and goes on to discuss how blacks were depicted on other shows of the day. But nowhere does it suggest that Shatner kissing Nichols was the first interracial kiss on TV, or that it even had much in the way of historical importance.