How JFK made NASA his secret weapon in the fight for civil rights in America

tags: civil rights, NASA, JFK

Richard Paul started his career on Capitol Hill, as National Affairs Press Secretary for Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and Press Secretary for the Senate Subcommittee on Children, Families, Drugs And Alcohol. Steven Moss is an associate professor of English at Texas State Technical College in Waco. Their book, "We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program," chronicles how the space race and the civil rights movement came together to help reshape the American South. 

Most Americans know the name of the first black player in professional baseball — Jackie Robinson. But how about the first black professional in the US space program? 

That was Julius Montgomery. He was part of a small cadre of African American mathematicians, engineers and technicians who helped power the space race — at a time when laws kept them from using the same toilet as their coworkers. (Later, he also integrated the Florida Institute of Technology.) These men were the vanguard of what became a government strategy to integrate the South. 

The idea came together because President John F. Kennedy had to deal with the Cold War, the space race and race relations simultaneously. In May 1961, Cosmonaut Yuri Gregarin became the first human in space, US-backed rebels were slaughtered at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, the Freedom Rides were met by bombings, rioting, mass arrests and the imposition of martial law, and President Kennedy committed the nation to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. 

NASA and its contractors were creating 200,000 new jobs in the American South, from Alabama and Florida to Mississippi and Texas. And Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, saw jobs as a vehicle to achieving racial integration. Johnson thought southern poverty caused southern racism, and he believed that pouring money into the region could bring the South into the nation’s economic — and social — mainstream. 

Kennedy placed Johnson at the heads of both his National Space Council and the President’s Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, enabling the vice president to implement the strategy. NASA and its contractors were required to hire blacks, creating upper-level job opportunities that had never been available before to them, well before passage of the Civil Rights Act made equal employment opportunity the law of the land. ...

Read entire article at Public Radio International

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