On July 15, 1969, as the U.S. government prepared to send the first men to the moon, hundreds of Black families from poor areas of the South marched to the gates of the Kennedy Space Center. Along with mules and wagons symbolic of the civil rights movement, the group, mostly African Americans numbering about 500, was led by civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded the slain Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The group had arrived at the Center, a day before the Apollo launch, to protest what Abernathy called America’s “distorted sense of national priorities.” He displayed a protest sign that said: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Abernathy spoke to the protesters at the site: “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilized nation have failed.”
The Apollo 11 mission has been considered one of the greatest technological achievements. It was also seen as a moment of unity considering the unrest of the 1960s. The program was motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, and its high cost was worrying. It cost $25.4bn, the equivalent of $180bn today. Black publications like the New York Amsterdam News and civil rights activists including Abernathy argued that such funds would be better spent to feed the poor and hungry and curtail other problems facing many African Americans.
The 1969 United States census had stated then that the poverty rate for African Americans was 31.1 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for Whites. Thus, when Alabama-born Baptist preacher Abernathy led the protesters to the Kennedy Space Center on July 15, his message was simple: that the billions being used for the Apollo program could be used to solve problems of many, particularly African Americans.
As NASA administrator Thomas Paine came out to the NASA perimeter to meet Abernathy and the protesters, they began singing “We Shall Overcome”.
“Paine stood coatless under a cloudy sky, accompanied only by Nasa’s press officer, as Abernathy approached with his party, marching slowly and singing We Shall Overcome,” according to an official NASA history. “Several mules were in the lead, as symbols of rural poverty. Abernathy then gave a short speech. He deplored the condition of the nation’s poor, declaring that one-fifth of the nation lacked adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care. In the face of such suffering, he asserted that space flight represented an inhuman priority. He urged that its funds be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and house the homeless,” NASA history recounts.
Paine replied that “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.”
For about 20 minutes, the two men talked. Abernathy, who had earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, asked Paine to “put NASA technologies in service to the poor,” according to Smithsonian. Before they ended their meeting, Paine “offered the hope” that Nasa indeed might contribute to addressing the problems highlighted by Abernathy. He also called on the minister to pray for the safety of the astronauts.
Abernathy said he would, and the two shook hands. “On the eve of man’s noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space and the heroism of the three men embarking for the moon,” Abernathy said, according to a UPI report. He, however, added: “What we can do for space and exploration we demand that we do for starving people.”
Many Black newspapers that carried editorials and cartoons attacking the space program agreed with him, so did many historians and other Black leaders. Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP, called the program “a cause for shame”, as stated by the Times.
“Yesterday, the moon. Tomorrow, maybe us,” the New York Amsterdam News wrote a day after the moon landing. And with all 12 people who walked on the moon being White men, with the majority of officials at mission control also being White, Gil Scott-Heron, in a spoken-word critique of the space missions called “Whitey on the Moon”, said, “A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And Whitey’s on the moon.”
Years after the meeting between Paine and Abernathy, NASA made attempts to deliver on the promises their member made on the eve of the Apollo launch. According to History, “NASA engineers took sensors initially used to detect contaminants in space capsules and converted them to measure urban air pollution. Another project took spacecraft insulation and made new kinds of walls and windows for public housing.”
But Neil Maher, author of 2017’s Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, said NASA’s move was “more of an advertising effort”. And though Apollo did inspire minorities and women to get involved in space research and exploration, with greater diversity at NASA today, millions of Americans are still starving and wallowing in poverty.
JT Johnson, a civil rights activist who was among the protesters at the Kennedy Space Center, told the Guardian recently: “This country is still the same, people are still poor and they’re still hungry and that has not been corrected.”
“So here we are still playing the same game…”