(Quotes in this sermon are not direct quotes but implied by the speaker)

This week, Moses sends scouts in to survey the land. At the end of forty days, they returned and went straight to Moses and Aaron to report:

Indeed it is a land filled with milk and honey but the people in the cities are powerful and all of their cities are fortified and large.

Caleb responds to the latter part of this report to the people:

Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it. (Numbers 13:25-30)

The majority of the scouts responded, “We cannot attack them. They are stronger than we. They will devour us. We saw them as giants and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and to the people there.”

Of interest to me is that Caleb does not make an argument concerning the size or strength of the people in the land, only that “we can do it!”

This Torah story immediately brought to mind a radio interview I heard just yesterday afternoon. Neil Degrasse Tyson – American astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium – was speaking to a very special actress on his weekly podcast program, Star Talk.

Nichelle Nichols was telling Tyson about her role in the original Star Trek series where she portrayed Lieutenant Ohura as the communications officer aboard the Enterprise for the television series Star Trek.1 Nichols wanted to leave the series in 1967, wanting to return to musical theater. William Shatner and Leonard Nemoy had really become the main characters and the rest were pretty much a supporting cast.

Nichols wrote a letter of resignation and tentatively walked into Gene Roddenberry’s office. Nervously – not knowing how he would react – she expressed her gratitude and thanked him for giving her this opportunity on Star Trek. She told him that her performance had created an opportunity to return to the stage.

“You can’t,” he responded. “Don’t you see what I am achieving here? You are more than just an actor. You cannot be replaced. I want you to think about your decision over the weekend.” He placed the letter in his desk drawer. “If you feel the same way on Monday, then I will accept this letter.”

Saturday night she was a celebrity guest at an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills. She was sitting on the dais when the promoter of the event came up behind her and said, “There is someone who wants to meet you. He says that he is your greatest fan.

Nichols thought that this must be some kid who is a Trekkie. As she rose to greet this kid, she saw a man approaching from the other end of the room. This man had a brilliant smile, which most people rarely saw, on his face. Well, she thought, this little child will have to wait a moment because this is my leader. He had a sparkle in his eye. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out, took her hand and thanked her for meeting him.

“Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.”

He went on to tell her, “Your role on television and power of Star Trek is so important now and to the future. This man (Gene Roddenberry) who has produced this has seen the future. We are there because you are there.” That is to say, the black community has been imagined in the future created by Gene Roddenberry. Up until this show the black community was not part of anybody else’s future. Up until this moment, on television, blacks had only been portrayed in menial roles.

He recognized how Star Trek was providing an important service to society.

Nichols told Tyson that Martin Luther King, Jr. told her, “You have one of the most important roles: It’s non-stereotypical, its brilliance, its beauty and intelligence and you do it with warmth and grace.”

She told him. “I will miss your co-stars. I have decided not to continue in this role.”

“You cannot,” he told her. “It has been heavenly ordained. This is God’s gift and onus for you. You have changed the face of television forever.

“This is not a black role. It is not a female role. Anyone can fill that role. A white person, male or female, can fill it. An alien can fill it. Don’t you understand for the first time we’re seen as we should be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role. It is what we are marching for – equality.

“You are chief communication officer, fourth in command.” (Nichols actually had no idea that she was chief communications officer and fourth in command. No one had told her that.)

“You have no idea the esteem we hold for you. You have no idea the power of television. This man has created a reality not just in the 23rd century. You are our image of where we’re going, you’re 300 years from now, and that means that’s where we are and it takes place now. Keep doing what you’re doing. You are our inspiration.

“My wife and Coretta allow our children to stay up late to watch because you are my hero.”

On Monday morning, numb from crying and overwhelmed by her meeting with her hero, she entered Gene Roddenberry’s office. She told him what took place over the weekend and said, “If you want me to stay, I will stay.”

“God bless Martin Luther King, Jr.; someone understands what I am trying to achieve,” he responded.

By the time the show aired in 1966, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was the perfect time for racial equality to be seen on television especially at a time when racial inequality was still prevalent on other television shows at the time.

Nichols recounted to Tyson that after the show was cancelled, so many women approached her and thanked her for her role. It had given them courage to stand up for themselves in our male-dominated society. And yet, one story she told yesterday was so much more profound in indicating the impact that she had on our society.

At a Star Trek convention in London, she looked up to see a skinhead2 approaching her table. Her security guards bristled as he approached. She held up her hand to them, indicating that she wanted to see what would develop.

“Because of you on Star Trek,” he told her, “I can never be that again. I am ashamed of what I have done and the people I have hurt. I know understand what the world and the future is.”

In the 1960’s, in a world that was powerfully unequal, unjust, and bigoted toward blacks, women and other minorities, Nichelle Nichols’ little and insignificant role had an impact.

In our Torah story this week, Caleb does not make an argument concerning the size or strength of the people in the land, only that “we can do it!” You are only small in your own eyes. You are capable of making a difference more than you know!

Amen.


[1] September 8, 1966 on NBC to 1969.

[2] A skinhead is a member of a subculture originating among working class youths in London, England in the 1960s that soon spread to other parts of the UK. Motivated by social alienation, skins are defined by their close-cropped or shaven heads, Dr Martens boots, braces, bleached jeans and smart shirts.