We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program
© 2015 Richard Paul, Steven Moss
Between the murder of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and both political and racial riots throughout the United States, 1968 was a tumultuous year for the American nation. It closed, however, with the glimpse of a hopeful future — a glimpse of the heavens, as three astronauts circled the Moon in low orbit in December. We Could Not Fail is a history of NASA’s connection with the Civil Rights movement, revealing how its vision of the future threw light upon the dark legacy of the Jim Crow past. The history unfolds in a series of miniature biographies, though only one actually approaches the astronaut program. Most of the people involved worked as NASA technicians or within industries that supplied it. NASA shared its history with the Civil Rights program, and not simply because the movement’s most restive years coincided with the push for space, during the administrations of men who claimed (in JFK’s case) or devoutly cared about fulfilling the promise of the American dream. The space ideal of NASA didn’t just help inspire Americans, southerners included, to push beyond old limits — it also provided the means for uplifting the south. Johnson, a Texan himself, believed that the greatest hindrance to the south growing beyond segregation was its economic despondency. Create regional prosperity in the south, he figured, and inequality and the institutions that supported it would evaporate away. Because NASA was the most highly visible arm of the Federal government during this years, it had a special responsibility to effect more equal hiring practices. Despite the pressure of the Kennedy brothers and Johnson, NASA struggled, more for want of material than ideas. Most engineers and support staff were recruited from the south itself, and segregated communities ceded ground only grudgingly to what NASA administrator James Webb wanted to do. One struggle, for instance, was reforming local housing politics, as discrimination kept black employees from relocating near NASA’s base of operations. Similarly, while there were black technical schools, NASA overlooked them: fortunately, men like Julius Montgomery, a black engineer, were advocating for the integration of places like Florida Tech. We Could Not Fail documents well the struggle of LBJ and Webb to make NASA’s promise a reality, through the lives of the would-be astronauts, activists, engineers, teachers, and other ordinary heroes who endured oppression with moral dignity, persevering until their value both as human beings and pioneers in a new age of exploration were recognized.