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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The work the students did was not just technologically groundbreaking. The space program “was the high-tech industry of the 1960s,” Watson says. Arranging for them to be there had not been easy; “We just praise NASA for its foresight to go and find African-American engineers to train,” Watson says.

As President Johnson had hoped it would, the space program opened the door for Bourda and the others. “We were determined and we had the ability to strive,” he says.

Today, there are eight engineers in Bourda’s family. “I’m proud to be the first one,” he says. “The kids—they saw what I did and they copied.”

The people who push through the door are not only the people who march. Sometimes they are the ones who show up every day, do their jobs, and show that they can handle the load. Neither the successes nor, more important, the failures of these people are simply personal: They had magnified repercussions. The black students hired through the Co-op program had to be the very best at all times. “We had heard Martin Luther King say, ‘When you start off a race behind, you have to run faster than everybody else,’ ” says Watson. As he and his fellow pioneers knew, they could not fail.

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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