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Sixty years ago, while president Kennedy was selling the public on beating the Russians to the moon, behind the scenes he was putting pressure on the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to set an example for integration in the South. But he was meeting resistance in Alabama.
Wernher von Braun, at the time the Director of Marshall Space Flight Center, along with his team, helped black engineers break color barriers in Huntsville.
The battle for civil rights in the early 1960s was fought on two contrasting fronts in Alabama.
There was the literal fight for equal rights – sit-ins, marches, etc. - that was often met with violence and fire bombs.
But there was another fight happening Huntsville. It was a quieter, but no less significant, battle being waged in the offices, labs and test facilities at Marshall Space Flight Center.
James Jennings was one of those early civil rights pioneers. He did it just by showing up to work every day.
“So that other people that looked like me could follow behind me,” he said.
An Alabama native, Jennings attended segregated schools. He attended Alabama A&M and began his career with NASA as a computer operator through a co-op program designed to make NASA a shining example of equal employment opportunity.
In the early 1960s, NASA was almost exclusively white men in white shirts sending white men to the moon.
“It was the first time that I had to operate in an all-white environment,” Jennings, now a retired NASA associate administrator. “You felt kinda lonely because there were a lot of times when you were the only (black) person in the meeting.”
There were quite a few African-American pioneers at NASA. Charlie Smoot became a NASA recruiter, traveling the country to convince young black scientists and engineers to relocate to NASA facilities in the South.
Clyde Foster helped African Americans at NASA train for advancement, and would go on to establish the first computer science bachelor’s degree program in the state at Alabama A&M.
Jennings was in the first graduating class.
The men say they all knew that if there were to be more like them they had to set the example.
“My feeling was that if I fail that would be an excuse not to let anybody come behind me,” Jennings said.
Richard Paul co-authored the book “We Could Not Fail – The First African Americans in the Space Program.”
“If an African-American NASA employee failed, the attitude would be, ‘Well, you know those people can’t handle this kind of work,’ said Paul. “So the responsibility was there to always do their absolute best. They could not fail and they did not fail.”
But despite their personal civil rights victories at work, integrated NASA facilities were still in the segregated South and black engineers could only work alongside their white colleagues.
“When you step off the base, you can’t use the same toilet as your coworkers. You can’t get a house. You can’t eat in the same restaurants,” Paul said.
When Gov. George Wallace took office in 1963 his divisive words and actions had an immediate negative impact on Huntsville’s fledgling aerospace industry. Engineers were refusing to move here.
There was talk of moving the space program out of Alabama.
The White House was growing impatient with Wallace. in a memo to Marshall Space Flight Center Director Wernher Von Braun, the administration expressed ‘concern over the lack of equal employment opportunity for negroes in Huntsville.’
Von Braun had had enough. He needed federal funds. He needed engineers. And Wallace was putting his plans at risk.
During a visit to Marshall in 1965, Wallace got an earful from the German scientist. A New York Times article quotes Von Braun as saying, “obstructionism and defiance can hurt and are hurting Alabama.”
Wallace never returned to Huntsville during the Apollo era.
While the space program didn’t put an end to workplace discrimination, Jennings says it did get better. Over a 40-year career, Jennings was named to the first equal opportunity board at NASA. He worked his way up to deputy director at Kennedy Space Center, where he was known both for his distinctive hat and for getting things done.
“You have to wake up every morning and say, look, I belong here as well as everybody else,” Jennings said. “I have a job to do and I’m going to go out and do it to the best of my ability.”
That extraordinary mission to the moon 50 years ago would not have been accomplished without their contributions.
“We were in a position to do a lot of good stuff, and I think we had a good run at it,” Jennings said.
Jennings credits his teachers with inspiring him to pursue math and physics. He now works to help inspire today’s students to get involved in more STEM programs.