New book documents NASA’s 1961 civil rights mission

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    Morgan Watson and six other students from Southern University - Baton Rouge became NASA's first African American engineers in 1964. (Photo courtesy of University of Texas Press)

    Morgan Watson and six other students from Southern University - Baton Rouge became NASA's first African American engineers in 1964. (Photo courtesy of University of Texas Press)

    For the first time, the story of NASA’s role in promoting civil rights by hiring the first African American spaceworkers is being told.

    Authors Richard Paul and Steven Moss feature ten African Americans who were hired at a tumultuous time in history in their new book “We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program.”

    “The image of black people in America was riding on them as professionals, and they could not fail. And it really does speak to one of the important things that this book reveals which is that these individuals had a different sort of civil rights victory than what we read in the history books,” Paul says. “They had a civil rights victory just by showing up every day.”

    But how did civil rights become one of NASA’s missions?

    Over the span of just five weeks in 1961, a lot changed while both the space program and the civil rights movement were expanding rapidly.

    After President Kennedy vowed to get a man on the moon, NASA went to work hiring 250,000 new people mostly in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi–right in the heart of some of the more problematic areas for civil rights.

    President Kennedy passed an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from discriminating against employees because of race and contractors had to put non-discrimination clauses into their federal contracts.

    Richard Paul recounts the story of Julius Montgomery, one of the men profiled in the book, who was the first African American to get hired as anything other than a janitor at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. When he walked in, Paul says, he was the only black man in the room and white space workers wouldn’t even shake his hand.

    The push for equal opportunity employment didn’t make a huge dent, according to Paul, because racism and discrimination were still incredibly strong.

    It’s hard to say whether Kennedy and NASA achieved their goal of advancing the civil rights movement, fully.

    “There are lots of different ways that you can calculate it,” says Paul. “But did it make a difference in the lives of the people that were there? Absolutely.”

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