In May 1961, the same month that the Freedom Riders began protesting bus segregation, President John F. Kennedy announced his goal to put a man on the moon. It was a tough task undertaken during a dark period in U.S. history. “We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program” offers a complex look at a multilayered subject: the intersection of NASA’s earliest days, African-American history and equal employment legislation.
It also illuminates a period in the civil rights movement that authors Richard Paul and Steven Moss discovered was both revolutionary for its time and deeply lonely for its activists.
“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,” they wrote.
“We Could Not Fail” draws on the stories of the pioneering African Americans who integrated NASA, including Julius Montgomery, who worked on top secret missile projects for the space program; NASA engineer Frank Crossley, the first African-American to earn a doctorate in metallurgical engineering; and astronaut corpsman Ed Dwight, “a space hero to Blacks equal to the White John Glenn.”
Kennedy used the lunar mission as an opportunity to implement the agenda of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. “The idea was that the head of a company could not afford to go to his shareholders and announce the loss of a multi-million dollar nasa contract because of race-based hiring.” Jim Crow laws were in effect in many of the locations from which NASA operated, and their impact on Black employees can’t be underestimated.
In the post-slavery Deep South, African-Americans paradoxically found that Whites respected them less as human beings than when they were considered property. As Paul and Moss note, property at least has a concrete dollar value associated with it. “It is a sad fact of the late 19th and much of the 20th century in America, especially in the South, that African American lives were in the main considered worthless.”
The challenges that NASA’s future African-American employees faced began with education.
“In the area near Cape Canaveral in 1937, for example, the school board spent $69.05 per capita for White students and $27.04 per capita for Blacks. African American children were crowded into very inadequate buildings and taught by poorly qualified teachers. Sadly, that was actually an improvement from 20 years earlier, when Floridians elected Governor Sidney J. Catts, who ran on a platform opposing any education for Blacks.”
“We Could Not Fail” eschews the popular Hollywood narrative of heroic defiance in the face of prejudice in favor of simple stories of mundane work-a-day perseverance.
“The civil rights movement, like so many other undertakings in history, is not monolithic. All mass movements — revolutions, wars, western expansion, the civil rights movement — begin, end and gain their sustenance from individual choices,” Paul and Moss caution. And indeed, the individual choices presented in “We Could Not Fail” are not always the most valiant or admirable. But they are true and forgivably human.
The discrimination these men faced was as subtle as the hiring practices observed by Julius Montgomery, “If you were ‘a good ol’ boy’ no one would ask about your qualifications. If you were Black, you needed to know someone and be twice as smart as the average White.” Or they could be as blatant as Montgomery’s later realization, “Local businessmen joined the Klan almost like joining the Rotary Club. The Ku Klux Klan controlled East Central Florida. The sheriff of Orange County was a Klansman. There were city commissioners, aldermen, and county commissioners in the Klan. … The Klan was so central to life there that the local paper covered their activities on the society page.”
How could anyone be expected to work in that kind of environment?
In spite of the dispiriting tone of many of the narratives in “We Could Not Fail,” you’ll be left with a most unexpected ray of hope: the potential for the federal government to take a leading role in making the country a more just and equitable place. In a time when the U.S. government is giving its people very little to take pride in, this vision of past acts of social justice through legislation makes the book worth reading.
It will also leave you wondering what kind of exposé will be written 50 years from now about race relations in our post-industrial, increasingly service-based economy — who will be the villains and who will be the heroes?
Wait there's more. Check out articles in the full July 26 issue.
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