It should not be surprising that races were an important sublot in Alabama's part of the drama that led to the Apollo 11 moon shoot 50 years ago. Race was part of every drama in Alabama in the 1960s.
But consider this timeline.
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in the room to run a Mercury Redstone rocket built by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The same month on May 14, seven black and six whites arrived on a bus in Washington, DC, bound to New Orleans. It was the first Freedom Ride.
Ten days after May 24, the bus was bombed in Anniston, Ala.
The following day on May 25, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech in Texas. "We choose to go to the moon," Kennedy said. "We choose to go to the moon this decade …".
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And a week later, a white crowd in Montgomery discovered that "the Liberators" reached Alabama City.
Kennedy had just won the presidency in 1960, and he was immediately caught up in two major challenges. He wanted and should show the world that America's system was the answer to global communism. And he would also support black Americans in their push for civil rights.
Going to the moon would be part of the proof that the US system was the best. And Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, would use the space program to promote black progress in the US south.
It made sense. The south was critical of the Apollo program, and that was the stage of civil rights drama. Alabama had Wernher von Braun and the German team who wanted to design the moon rockets at a military base in Huntsville. Florida had one of the best places in America to launch these rockets into space. And Houston would lead the manned space refugee program with Texas natives and Vice President Lyndon Johnson running the National Aviation and Space Council.
It took the decade and 400,000 people across America to make Kennedy's vision of a moon landing a reality, and South would change more over the decade than anywhere in America.
Historians say NASA took special steps to recruit black team members in Alabama. It created an "entrepreneurial group" to push other contractors to hire black employees. It hired a man named Charlie Smoot as "the first black recruiter" to seek black professionals across the country.
And the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville reached historic black colleges and universities and invited representatives to Huntsville in 1963. They helped create the first black co-op program, and the program's first recruits are part of NASA and American space history. They were Walter Applewhite, Frank C. Williams, Jr. Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield and Morgan Watson.
There were no other black employees at Marshall at that time, and history says no one in the city would rent the first six rented an apartment or hotel room. They describe participating in concerts in the city, where the audience was divided by a rope with black on one side and white on the other.
The carrot was federal dollars, but Johnson was willing to use the cane if the carrot did not work. According to a story, Johnson then told US Sen. John Sparkman from Huntsville that the Marshall Center could go away if the doors were not opened to blacks in Huntsville.
As told by longtime Huntsville Times reporter and editor Bob Ward, Sparkman got the word for key businessmen. He had just left Johnson's office, Sparkman said, and the new president was "giddier than hell because they (Marshall Center) can't get anyone to come to Huntsville (for employment interviews), except for lily-white men, for the most part."  false "/>
Johnson threatened to make NASA in Huntsville "cease to be" if the doors were not opened in the city to black. A plan was made and a black funeral home owner The name RE Nelms was asked to order a meal at the local King's Inn hotel restaurant, Nelms planned for the night – his steak was supposedly "inedible" – but words went to Washington that Huntsville restaurants now serve black. 19659002] Despite the plans, recruitment and advisory councils, other reports say that black recruiting never came over 3 percent of the workforce on the Apollo program.
by Braun personli gt "actually pay attention to the problem" and was obliged to change. The Marshall Center's actions "would go beyond anything else done by NASA in the south," according to authors Richard Paul and Steven Moss.
But progress came ever so slowly when it came at all. The book reports on a study by researcher and sociologist Peter Dodd from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, who was reportedly shocked to find technological advances had little impact on social views.
In Huntsville, Dodd found a technology-conscious workforce with little sympathy for blacks seeking more fair treatment. For NASA workers, blacks seeking equality were a group they were likely to involve, but without any real personal concern. The people who did not work for the space program were more conservative, and they partially accused NASA of the pressure for change in their communities.
This NASA pressure could be practical, the book says. The locals could blame "Yankees" and "outsiders" for the changes in their communities; Reformers could use the pushback to shame the federal government for more action.
A key player locally in the change was Clyde Foster, who was called "The Country Spartacus" in the book. Foster pushed NASA to provide the black staff with the training they needed to advance, and NASA responded with another training program at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. The coaches came from as far as Nashville, and the book says 100 black employees for the training and qualified for better jobs thanks to Foster.
But how did NASA's first black job at the space agency? Historical accounts say that the first person employed was concerned that the education they received at black southern schools might not be sufficient for the job. But they later said they never felt unprepared or unequal to the tasks assigned.
Von Braun was really involved in integration, many believe. He was on stage at Miles College in Birmingham in the early 1960s to support his plan to build a new physics building, although Miles students were leaders of boycotts and protests disturbing the city.
Did NASA really find a difference in Alabama's race journey? Looking back from the vantage point, the book concludes that whatever the motive was, the agency's efforts were real. But they might be ineffective. The agency tried and failed, the book says, and then it tried again and failed "less badly." The reasons were both complex and simple. The forces that reformers fought for were deep and rooted. It was the complicated part. The simple part was the agency had the other big priority at the time – ran to the moon.
We celebrate Apollo's 50th anniversary with stories throughout the month. You can find the entire collection of stories, from AL.com employees and others, here: Apollo 11 Anniversary .