How NASA Joined the Civil Rights Revolution

Integration came to the nation’s space agency in the mid-1960s.

When Alan Shepard strode out to the Mercury-Redstone rocket in May 1961 (above, right), NASA was scarcely integrated. By 1965, at the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama civil rights march (above, left), the Huntsville rocket center employed several black engineers. (Ralph Morse / Time Life Pictures; Library of Congress; Proquest Historical Newspapers)
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A few days after the incident, Marshall Keith, the white NASA employee, was at home when there was a pounding on his front door. He opened it to find two men with guns who ordered him out of the house. The men blindfolded Keith, marched him to their car, and threw him in the back seat. They drove Keith to a remote section of the city, forced him out of the car, and made him strip. Then they pulled out a can of pepper spray and doused him from head to toe. The kidnappers hit him in the head with a blackjack, got in their car, and drove away. He ended up at a hospital, where he was treated for burns. He disappeared after the incident, according to Henry Thomas, an organizer from the Congress of Racial Equality who came down to Huntsville to help run the sit-ins. “We could not contact him after he was released from the hospital,” he says. “I was told his grandma had been threatened, that he had resigned his job. He left town for New York City. That was the last we heard of him.”

Thomas, who says the local police “kept a 24-hour tag on me” during the sit-ins, recalls a similar incident. On January 15, he says he noticed a strange odor in his car. “After about a block I got a stinging sensation in the seat of my pants. It was very bad. A little later I was in so much pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. We found a doctor and he smelled my coat and said, ‘That’s just like mustard gas.’ I was put in hospital, under sedation.”

Huntsville’s black community knew the danger, but organizers of the sit-ins—pediatrician Sonnie Hereford, dentist John Cashin, and the Reverend Ezekiel Bell—pressed on, attacking racial inequality on several fronts. While Hereford marshalled picketers to walk in front of downtown restaurants with signs saying “Khrushchev can eat here but I can’t,” Cashin and Bell distributed leaflets with news of the Huntsville sit-ins in front of the Midwest and New York Stock Exchanges. Their protest, Hereford says, “went out on the AP [wire] and quickly got the attention of [Huntsville] whose financial well-being depended on outside investment.” Not long afterward, the lunch counters and the pediatric ward at the hospital were open to people of all races.

Other public facilities, however, were still strictly segregated when the seven students arrived. In his inaugural address, Alabama governor George Wallace evoked a “separate racial station,” a concept that prevailed in Huntsville’s social sphere. “I will never forget one of the concerts that we went to,” Watson recalls. “Ray Charles came to Huntsville and there was this rope right down the center of the arena where he performed. All the whites were on one side, the blacks were on the other side.”

Nevertheless, Watson says, “there was so much going on in the black community.” When they got ready for fun, he says, “we had a lot of social outlets.” Williams had a brand-new Pontiac, and on the weekends, Watson says, “we would jump in the car and go off to Nashville or over to Atlanta.” Plus, there was plenty to do right in Huntsville. They were young. They were smart. They had jobs at NASA.

“We knew that on the social scene everything would be segregated,” Watson says. “On the work scene,” however, “that was the view of what was to come.”

What it Meant To Be First
NASA had placed the students at the cutting edge of rocket technology at Marshall. Frank Williams helped design the ground-support equipment for the Apollo program. Morgan Watson worked in propulsion, testing the Saturn 1-B, the forerunner of the Saturn V.

Regardless of how people felt about the black students, their presence caused a stir. “We were sources of curiosity by everybody,” Watson says. African-Americans at Marshall “were proud of us because we were blazing new territory for them,” while whites “wanted to know who we were and where we came from.” He remembers someone asking if he and his cohorts were students visiting from Africa. White Alabamans could not imagine that a group of young black men walking through a NASA facility in shirts and ties could be Americans.

Bourda says it was not uncommon to overhear the white Co-op students speak disparagingly. “We got a lot of them trying to come in,” they would say when they thought no blacks were around. And more to the point: “I don’t think they can cut the mustard.”

Watson said any self-doubt evaporated after he talked to the white students about their educations. “We had smaller classes, and were not taught by graduate students—we were taught by the professors themselves. We were not arrogant, but we were very, very proud of ourselves, and we liked the opportunity to be able to show that we could perform.” In fact, Watson had the chance to teach some of NASA’s engineers new skills. “I was in Southern University’s first computer programming class back in 1963, and when I got to NASA I was one of the few—including NASA employees—who were computer-literate.”

About Richard Paul

Richard Paul, a public radio documentary producer, wrote the program Race and the Space Race (produced with Soundprint Media Center). He is currently finishing a book on the first African-Americans in the space program, titled And We Could Not Fail, with Steve Moss of Texas State Technical College at Waco.

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