On May 13, 1961, in its first issue after Alan Shepard's historic Mercury mission, the New York Amsterdam News ran a front-page column by James Hicks that asked a question weighing on the minds of millions of Americans. "If you are like me," the executive editor of the nation's leading black newspaper said, "as soon as you finished thrilling to the flight of the United States's first man into outer space, your next thought was, 'I wonder if there were any Negroes who had anything to do with Commander Shepard's flight?'" More than fifty years later, it is doubtful that many Americans could answer that question. It is safe to say that most know the name of the first black player in professional baseball and of the first person to integrate the University of Mississippi. Yet how many know the name of the first African American technical professional at Cape Canaveral, or of the man who integrated the Florida Institute of Technology? How many Americans know that the same man did both?
This book tells a story about a particular group of men who went to work either for the civilian or military space program during the period we now think of as the civil rights era, and the challenges they endured to accomplish what they did at the time and in the place that they did it. NASA tried desperately during this period to convince African Americans to move to Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas to work in the burgeoning space industry, but because of the South's well-deserved reputation for discrimination and violence, thousands would not go. Looking at the stories of those who did offers an opportunity to see an alternative to the standard civil rights narrative of marches, sit-ins, and lawsuits brought by the U.S. Justice Department or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This is because during some of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, these men kept their noses firmly to the grindstone. While opposing forces, black and white, fought each other in the courtrooms and out in the streets over access to schools and public facilities, they kept their heads buried in their work. As "clashes between the increasingly militant Negroes and extremist whites created an atmosphere of crisis," they did not march, did not protest; they did not sue; they did not make threats. Others did those things, sometimes right nearby, but these men instead realized a different kind of civil rights victory—quietly breaking through color barriers in education, employment, and politics to end up reviving and governing formerly defunct black towns, integrating southern colleges, earning PhDs and good jobs in advanced fields, and patenting important new inventions.
NASA's role in southern desegregation remains an unwritten and almost forgotten chapter in the history of the space program. There is much to say, however, about how the agency assisted portions of the South in stepping away from segregation as the Space Age promised to create a new society and shoot it off into the stars. The work NASA did as part of federal civil rights efforts, as well as the social consequences of its presence in the South, bridges two great American stories of the early 1960s. Technology and race are core issues in American history. From the cotton gin and slavery to the Space Age and civil rights they run together, and every once in a while they merge. This is the story of how these two principal themes of race and technology came together in the years before there was a Civil Rights Act, when civil rights laws and policies were just getting on their feet. During this time, many in the government were as committed to grounding Jim Crow as they were to landing a spacecraft on the Moon. This book tells that story in full and focuses on a group of brave and determined people who used the opening provided by this confluence to challenge a violent status quo.
Portrayals of the early space programs suggest they were an almost thoroughly white endeavor with no input from or impact on African Americans. NASA was German rocket scientists commanding legions of white American technicians, preparing and controlling capsules manned by jocular white fighter pilots and stoic white engineers. According to Konrad Dannenberg, a deputy to Wernher von Braun, the director of Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Alabama, "I am not aware of any high-level colored people who became part of the team." Make no mistake, however. African Americans were there, and their presence had an impact.
While it is true that African Americans went to work elsewhere in the federal workforce, no other federal agency existed because of and for the Space Age, and no other component of the federal government enjoyed the romantic hyperbole associated with NASA in the early years of its human spaceflight program. The front pages of the black press portrayed African Americans working for the space program in the early 1960s as heroes. That did not happen to people working at the General Services Administration or the post office. The image making rubbed off. As Morgan Watson, one of NASA's first black engineers, put it, "to be selected to participate at NASA was certainly a thing of pride."
The men profiled in this book have stories that conform to significant trends and activities related to the space program's connections with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. This is true even though their stories were unearthed through a completely random, journalistic process. It is more than coincidence that this happened, however. While these stories represent a narrow slice of the overall African American experience during this period, they are representative of a particular subset. The government engaged in a massive campaign to open federal workplaces and federal contractor workplaces to African Americans. Though the campaign did not come close to reaching the level of integration it sought, it still resulted in many successes. These men are among those successes. That is why their stories track so closely with the broader national narrative. Each chapter takes advantage of that relationship to tell the pioneers' stories as they orbit around national events, stories in NASA's southern host communities, and other narratives of importance to this largely unexplored confluence.
Julius Montgomery began building missile components at Cape Canaveral in the mid-1950s, a time when Florida undergirded and undercut its sunny, friendly reputation with a strain of savage Jim Crow segregation. Montgomery's story provides both the opportunity to discuss the broad impact of that segregation and a gripping demonstration of what it felt like on a person-to-person basis. His arrival corresponded with the climax and tragic end of the campaign of Florida's first civil rights martyr, Harry T. Moore, who registered hundreds of thousands of African American voters before the Ku Klux Klan murdered him only a few miles from Cape Canaveral. Moore's story, in turn, provides an opportunity to describe the Klan's ubiquity in the Cape Canaveral community and helps explain why Montgomery behaved the way he did when confronted by almost-daily racial assaults. Civil rights histories tend to talk about mass movements or to place individuals within mass movements. An unusual aspect of the stories of the first African Americans to integrate NASA and the space program is that they did not serve as a vanguard. Most acted as individuals and remained individuals, their individuality often constraining their behavior. So when a co-worker confronted Montgomery and declared, "You are nothing but a nigger," the result was behavior appropriate to the time and place. That sense of appropriateness is also evident in the story of Montgomery's integration of the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT).
While civil rights history is replete with stories of African Americans integrating southern colleges in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is fair to say that the story of Julius Montgomery's integration of FIT is one of the least known. It happened without incident, but not without drama. It also had important ramifications. That it happened when it did—only only a few weeks before the Greensboro sit-in—makes its conclusion significant. Montgomery's story is one of many in this book of people overcoming Jim Crow in the South using methods other than those we have come to expect. Also unconventional is the image of Florida that Montgomery's story presents.
The Florida story is also a significant part of the narrative of Theodis Ray. Ray grew up under unusual circumstances; he was the descendant of African Americans who fought for and won their freedom in the Civil War and who created a free black enclave whose destruction made way for the creation of Kennedy Space Center. The town, called Allenhurst, was itself a triumph. It was a place where African Americans worked for themselves rather than as vassals, and provided their children with education. The unique nature of life in Allenhurst molded Ray's self-definition, even after Space Age progress wiped out the place that he loved, leaving him and the rest of his community to scuffle for janitorial work at NASA. Ray's story also allows a window into the motivations behind the Kennedy administration's early attempts at workplace integration.
If there is a distinction to draw between a co-worker saying "you are nothing but a nigger" and a supervisor saying "you are qualified to be a senior member, but because you are so advanced for a Negro, we thought you were content," it is a distinction without a difference. Therefore, the story of Frank Crossley, while not laced with overt racism like that of Julius Montgomery, is equivalent. Crossley, who first heard and learned the true meaning of the term "equal opportunity employer" at precisely the time the Kennedy administration was compelling NASA contractors to advertise themselves using that term, has a story that allows an exploration of what the Kennedy administration did once it felt motivated to act for racial equality.
The literature of the civil rights movement has multiple tales of the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights organizations threatening to cut off federal funding, staging sit-ins, holding boycotts and protests, and filing lawsuits. Less well documented, however, is the role federal hiring and federal contracting played in the fight against racism and segregation. Jobs were the muscle the Kennedy administration had at hand when it came to forcing equal employment opportunity, especially in the South. Vice President Johnson, the head of the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity (PCEEO), saw six agencies as leading the way. NASA was one, and it was a large one.
Kennedy chose to rely on federal hiring and contracting because he doubted Congress would give him the power to do anything greater through legislation. Johnson, however, actually saw jobs as a vehicle to achieve racial integration. Once pressure at home and concerns about America's image abroad forced Kennedy into the civil rights struggle, NASA's location in the South became a problem and an opportunity. During his presidential campaign, Kennedy made the elimination of poverty a priority. Vice President Johnson had ideas on how to make that happen and to end racial tension at the same time. They hinged in no small measure on the space program.
Johnson believed there was an inexorable link between southern poverty and southern racism. If an activist federal government could solve one, he thought, it could solve the other and transform the South. Even during the paternalistic days of the New Deal, the South largely held at bay federal money and the strings attached to it. By the 1960s, however, the death of cotton-based sharecropping had enabled the government to begin finally making the kinds of inroads that had until then not been possible. Johnson hoped to use this intervention to transition the South away from farming and toward technology, thereby bringing it into the nation's social and economic mainstream. According to James Jennings, a retired NASA deputy administrator, it was common knowledge in African American communities that Johnson intended to use the space program to accomplish this goal. Once Johnson "found out that the Republican Party was interested in funding this program to beat the Russians to the Moon, he thought this was a good opportunity to have a federal program that they could get blacks into—to integrate that part of the government, and also influence the local community." Johnson was not shy about promoting this idea, especially after he ascended to the presidency, where he declared NASA to be part of his "Great Society" initiative—its federal money transforming poor southern communities. It was when Kennedy placed Johnson at the heads of both his National Space Council and the PCEEO that the vice president first found himself in a position to implement his plan. For many African Americans who went to work for NASA, the plan worked, and Frank Crossley's story offers a ground-level look at how the experiment played out.
Crossley's experience offers yet another distinctive look at an African American space worker achieving equality through unconventional means. Crossley's applied new theories of workplace management were combined with a knack for invention, a superior intellect, and the attention of the black press. An influential columnist oversaw Crossley's early career and used him as a harbinger of the racial changes that would begin after World War II. Though Crossley did help to bring those changes about, the means he used were not what his early chronicler expected.
Crossley was not the only space worker lionized by the black press. Like much of America, black newspapers succumbed to the lure of the Space Age, but unlike their white counterparts, they also used the era's promise to make side-by-side comparisons with the reality of segregation. The stories of Otis King and Ed Dwight provide the chance to highlight both of these tendencies while also exploring the concept of the "Space Age"—what the phrase meant and how that meaning left it open to exploitation by those who wished to use it in the cause of racial integration. When King and his cohorts at Texas Southern University carried signs reading "Space Age Houston, Stone Age Schools," and when the black press said Dwight would be the first black man on the Moon, it reverberated in American society. Why and how it did are virtually unexamined subjects in the literature of both the space race and civil rights.
Dwight's saga received what can arguably be seen as too much attention while it was going on, overshadowing the achievements of African Americans who truly made a difference both to the space program and to racial integration. The eminent astronomer George Carruthers, who built the first observatory ever deployed on another celestial body, is one. Discussing his work and career provides an opportunity to examine the culture within a space program that said it wanted to integrate but could never bring itself to do it. The application and impact of the cultural norms behind that dynamic in the South in the early years of the space program is another area not explored at any length before. The lives and experiences of ordinary space workers—scientists like Carruthers as well as other workers—are illuminating. It is important to be aware of the actions and accomplishments of the leading figures in the space program. However, it is equally important to know the places where NASA and the space contractors looked for African American engineers, scientists, and technicians and where they did not; how, where, and whether NASA enforced fair housing rules to integrate neighborhoods near space facilities; and how the Civil Rights Act overlaid the civilian space program's rendezvous with its communities. Understanding these things sheds light on where and why Vice President Johnson's plan to change the South through technology jobs worked, and where and why it failed.
The traditional southern social order had its defenders, but the space centers represented a lot of money, a lot of jobs, and a tangible piece of Space Age glamour. An attack on NASA was an attack on prosperity; even more, it was an attack on a positive future. As Vice President Johnson pointed out in 1963, the MSFC's home of Huntsville, Alabama, was "one of the top communities in the Nation from the standpoint of Government employment." Under the circumstances, southern leaders could do little but accept or ignore the agency's actions, and as a result, NASA affected long-held southern attitudes and actions on the issue of race, with varied success. In Brevard County, Florida, money and Space Age symbolism had a mild impact on communities near Cape Canaveral. The Mississippi Test Facility in rural Mississippi and Houston's Manned Space Center, despite their radically different environments, shared NASA's failure to alter racial views significantly in their host communities. Agency efforts maintained a higher profile and enjoyed greater success in Huntsville than in any other host community. The stories of Richard Hall, Delano Hyder, Clyde Foster, Morgan Watson, and George Bourda, all of whom worked there, demonstrate the reasons why. Hall and Hyder evinced the community's racial blind spot, which went hand in hand with NASA's, while Foster, Watson, and Bourda help demonstrate the actions NASA finally took once it was pushed hard enough to respond.
At the MSFC, even at the time when Governor George Wallace was calling for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," NASA made important strides on civil rights. After a period of ignoring Wallace's provocations and the complaints of African American NASA workers about racist activity within the MSFC personnel office, the agency, its contractors, and two African American employees combined in 1963 to bring about change. Their most significant achievement was in building a cadre of local African American technicians and finding and recruiting African American engineers. The agency's quiet early steps became explosive in 1964 when NASA administrator James Webb made national news by appearing to suggest that MSFC would move out of Alabama if the state did not change its ways on race. Center director Wernher von Braun told chambers of commerce around the state, "Alabama's image is marred by civil rights incidents and statements" and urged businesspeople to be more open to integration. Bourda and Watson, beneficiaries of the heightened recruiting program, fulfilled Vice President Johnson's dream by going to NASA for training that served them the rest of their lives. At the same time, the attention drawn to their arrival at the agency, in Watson's words, "helped change people's perception of black people in the South." The space program, he said, "opened the door," and in doing so, showed that African American professionals existed, and that they could work among the nation's technological elite.
Watson perhaps best characterizes the biggest contribution made by the people profiled in this book—these men often fought racism just by showing up. While America's historical memory recalls those who marched and credits them with changing the nation's racial situation, the African Americans of the space program demonstrate victory gained another way. They worked in the system, they worked with the system; they studied hard; and when they went to work they did the very best they could. There is a reason why there were no mediocre First African Americans in sports. A journeyman first baseman would have helped make the racists' point—that blacks did not belong in the Major Leagues because they were not good enough. That Jackie Robinson hit nearly .300 and led the National League in stolen bases his first year demonstrated to the nation that he belonged in the Big Leagues. In the same way, the first African Americans in the space program had to be at their best at all times. With all that was riding on their presence there, they could not fail.
This book combines the fields of space history, African American history, southern history, and social history to tell its story. Bringing these fields together requires an analysis of a segregated society that embraced technology and promoted a federal agency that called for desegregation. It further requires an understanding of government policy and agency culture. There must also be an awareness of African American and white southern society. Finally, this is not just a story of great men and their deeds. It is the story of people relegated to the lowest rung of the social ladder in the Deep South who sought and built better lives for themselves.
We based the analysis contained in this book on the historical, economic, and literary works relevant to any discussion of the space program and the civil rights movement. However, this book also has a unique additional ingredient. Between 2007 and 2013, we tracked down many of the first generation of African Americans in the space program and placed them in front of microphones.
This process began when Richard Paul found a 1958 article from Ebony Magazine titled "Negroes Who Help Conquer Space: Over 1,000 Negroes Are in Satellite, Missile Field," and proceeded to track down the twenty men it profiled. All of those early missile men were long dead or, their relatives thought, too mentally incapacitated to be interviewed, but beginning with that article and leads from Steven Moss's thesis, "NASA and Racial Equality in the South, 1961–1968," and working through historically black college and university alumni offices, Social Security records, and phone call after phone call after phone call, we found many more of the first generation of African Americans who went to work for NASA when it opened in 1958. We found more by contacting prominent African American scientists and engineers, asking them for the names of African American professors they had while in college, contacting those professors, and asking them about colleagues and other contemporaries who worked for NASA or the space program.
The tales of their lives, their careers, NASA, Jim Crow, and how those elements fit together constitute the largest extant collection of oral histories ever conducted of African American employees of NASA and the space program. Their rich, untold stories and casual everyday observances offer an opportunity to look at the agency's action and the civil rights movement from the bottom up and thereby "gain a better sense of the less contentious ways in which minorities created advancement opportunities for themselves and in which the agency aided their advancement." While archives, for example, offer NASA's perspective on why it could not hire blacks,19 they do not yield vivid descriptions—like those offered in this book—of the terror that caused blacks to forego good jobs in NASA's southern communities. The archives might illuminate what NASA administrator James Webb did to press his personnel directors and equal employment compliance officers to hire and promote more African Americans. Only oral history interviews, however, can explain how an African American technician broke the back of NASA's whites-only advanced training program in Alabama and the impact that action had on the personal and professional lives of black NASA employees.
The rockets that took astronauts into space did not emerge spontaneously from the hand of Wernher von Braun. People hammered and welded rocket parts into place; strung cables and wires; and in this era before computers, rigorously tested these vehicles with pencils and slide rules. African American space program workers were fully cognizant of the turmoil around them in the 1960s. Like their white colleagues, they watched it on TV. They also read black newspapers, listened to Martin Luther King Jr., and hoped for a world where respect and equality would replace segregation as the normal way of life, with higher wages and the right to use the same toilet as a white co-worker. NASA as an agency and its contractors as corporations did not cover themselves with glory when it came to hiring or promoting African Americans, but the African Americans who went to work for both were able to assist in redefining racial identity in late twentieth-century America. James Hicks of the New York Amsterdam News wondered "if there were any Negroes who had anything to do" with significant elements of the space program. This book answers that question and explains why it matters.
"Surprising and insightful.”
—Laura Helmuth, New York Times Book Review
“We Could Not Fail is hard to put down. Reading about the personal experiences of African Americans with technical expertise before the civil rights era resonated strongly, as it likely will for any reader with African-American ancestors. The book's discussion of free African-American communities also sheds light on an important, but often overlooked, part of American history. We Could Not Fail is not only a terrific read but also an important historical book, collecting and documenting features of life in the South for African Americans that have not heretofore been recorded.”
—Claudia Alexander, Science Magazine
"This comprehensively researched book is replete with fascinating details about ways in which the civil rights movement influenced the space program. . . . It makes an important contribution to African American history.”
—Julianne Malveaux, The Washington Post
“This is a wonderfully surprising book that explores the impact and the struggles of African Americans involved in NASA and the early days of the space program, a story that is little known but is well told by Richard Paul and Steven Moss. This is not just the history of a few pioneering individuals; rather this work provides insight into the struggle to obtain civil rights by contextualizing how the space program was integrated and how it helped to shape the movement for racial justice in the 1960s. This work broadens our understanding of this period of turmoil and change.”
—Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
“Wonderfully written and expertly researched, We Could Not Fail is a skillfully paced, real-life narrative of the surprising but profound impact African American engineers and technicians, NASA, and space exploration had on race and segregation in the Jim Crow south. Richard Paul and Steven Moss have produced an engaging book that provides a much-needed window into how public policy, mass protest, personal talent, character, and perseverance--alongside bold national ambition and vision--connected to change a nation. This is a ‘must read’ book, particularly at a time when we are once again openly struggling with the role of government in ensuring opportunity and civil rights for all our citizens.”
—Mae Jemison, M.D., former NASA astronaut and principal, 100 Year Starship
“The first African Americans to join the United States space program encountered pushback both inside and outside NASA's doors. When they moved to Cape Canaveral and other Deep South pillars to work on Apollo missions, the Ku Klux Klan was there to greet them. Even history and space program buffs should find insight in We Could Not Fail's fresh look at a well-treaded era.”
“This account of 10 pioneers, told against the backdrop of the civil rights era, highlights the intersection of technology and race in U.S. history, continuing innovations in technology, and the struggle of minorities to participate.”
—Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“Paul (documentary producer) and Moss (English, Texas State Technical Coll.) offer a complementary narrative to our national story about the civil rights movement, providing a nuanced look at how integration and civil rights ideals shaped and were shaped by federal employers. . . . Vital and of interest to all Americans, from history and space buffs to students, researchers, and casual readers.”
"President John F Kennedy's ambition to put a man on the moon was a key part of his legacy, but less well known is how his administration used NASA as an agent for social change during the civil rights movement. It's a nearly forgotten history that authors Richard Paul and Steven Moss investigate in their new book, We Could Not Fail. It profiles some of the first African Americans in the US space programme and the lasting impact of their work."
—BBC World News