On January 28, 1986, Americans watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger suffered a catastrophic rupture in its rocket booster shortly after liftoff. Among the seven crew members who perished was Ronald McNair (1950-1986) and African American astronaut who had joined a diverse crew of individuals who were making history. As a student, I remember being in awe of McNair and the mission he was on. Naturally, my fellow students and I also had an affinity for Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986) a schoolteacher whose hometown was watching that day as well. To millions of young black children, McNair was a remarkable sight, but he was not the first to break NASA’s color barrier. In fact, NASA had begun to integrate the space program decades before, during the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), whose initiative to travel to the moon led to NASA changing itself and playing a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement.
When I first started to read the book, I was not sure what to expect but admittedly, I did not associate the cover with the movement for civil rights. However, I knew that what I was about to learn would provide me with knowledge of the men and women who have not been given credit for their journeys in life that undoubtedly had obstacles along the way. Readers may ask why the story of NASA’s role in the movement is unknown. Until I read this book, I was not aware of the agency’s importance. The authors are also cognizant of this and pull no punches in stating that:
“NASA’s role in southern desegregation remains an unwritten and almost forgotten chapter in the history of the space program.”
I believe this to be an understatement and cannot recall any of my history books mentioning this. But such is the beauty of reading; there are always new things to learn. The story focuses on the American South where Jim Crow was at the height of its power. The Kennedy Administration could not ignore the growing social unrest in America but faced challenges in Southern States and their representatives in Congress who were openly hostile to the thought of minorities having equal rights under the law. However, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) did not shy away from difficult tasks and when “ruthless Bobby” was needed, he delivered. Space exploration was not on the administration’s primary agenda but once it became clear that the program could be a vehicle to drive forward integration, all hands were on deck. And soon NASA found places to operate its growing program in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. The goal was admirable but even NASA learned that the South was unlike any place in America.
On March 6, 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which was a multi-part order that set into motion important procedures. The most crucial was the creation of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, known by its acronym PCEEO. Upon the creation of this committee, civil rights activist and government agencies committed to dismantling segregation kicked into high gear and the space program itself became a prime target. As the story shifts its focus to the South, the complicated position of NASA and its black employees takes shape. The recruitment of blacks did commence but the South was not ready to change, which created a strange paradox across the region. NASA struggled to attract qualified candidates due to the South’s infamous reputation. Added to this unusual operation was the role of Werner Von Braun (1912-1977), the former Nazi party official and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The irony that a former member of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich became a key figure in the movement for civil rights and integration will not be lost on readers. The authors are even more frank in their assessment when they remark,
“The word “ironic” does not begin to capture what it meant that a man tasked with implementing a program of racial equality had once worked for Hitler. Von Braun had used the slave labor of concentration camp inmates to build the V2 rockets that fell on London and elsewhere. Yet this was the man tasked with correcting the legacy of slavery in Alabama.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910) had it right when he remarked that “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t“. But in a time when society was changing rapidly and alliances were needed, the unlikely became reality. However, that is not to say that the introduction of Black Americans into the space program was without its setbacks. The new recruits arrived to find that NASA as an agency was responsive to federal law but changing the culture within NASA required more time and determination. That did not deter the men in this book whose names are part of history such as Julius Montgomery (1929-2020), Clyde Foster (1931-2017) and Theodis Ray (1942-2021). In Washington, the White House was watching the progress at NASA and remained committed to seeing it succeed. But as the authors show, not everyone within the administration was on the same page. The bitter rivalry between Robert Kennedy and future President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) again rears its ugly head. Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson continued the movement towards integration, and he was able to succeed in the senate in comparison to Kennedy, whose civil rights bill had not gained any significant traction. Johnson’s reputation as a master politician is on full display.
Outside of NASA facilities, the movement continued, and the authors also discuss what was happening on the ground as marches, sit-ins and strikes took place in the hotbed of segregation. The scenes are disheartening and readers sensitive to the subject matter may want to use discretion. The events are well-documented but revisiting them here is as unsettling today as they were then. However, the emphasize the seriousness of the change NASA was attempting to bring to the South, the authors had to show the threat of death that existed for blacks who dared to challenge the system and the deplorable living conditions of blacks trapped under Jim Crow. There were successes but also tragedies as we see in the book. And like places in which conflict has occurred, there was a talent and brain drain out of the South, which is another part of the movement that is not discussed.
Through location, NASA found itself co-existing with a growing movement that was not going to slow down. The agency did act on occasion but as we see in the book, there were also missed opportunities. The NASA effort was not perfect, but the agency did have success and it did help change the social climate in America. The story is not as popular, but it is equally as important as any in history. Moving forward I hope to see more young men and women from all backgrounds take interest in the space program. Tools of untapped talent exist everywhere, and NASA learned this surely but slowly during the 1960s. Today America is a different place, but in the future, younger generations will be required to carry the torch. As we look for those future engineers, astronauts, and important personnel, this book will remind us that they can be found in the most unexpected of places. Highly recommended.