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How NASA's Space Race Helped To Integrate The South


We're looking back this morning to a former president and one way he tried to change society. Shortly after John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he took action on civil rights. One of his first moves was an executive order requiring federal agencies to hire minorities. At the time, the fastest growing government agency was based in the Deep South - NASA.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amid the fertile farmlands of northern Alabama, the Army moves the former German missile experts and some military personnel here to continue rocket development.

GREENE: The space program was launching thousands of jobs in Alabama, Florida, Texas and Mississippi. And Kennedy saw the space race as a vehicle for integrating the South. A new book about the first African-Americans to join the space program has just come out. It's called "We Could Not Fail." Authors Steven Moss and Richard Paul profiled 10 African-American scientists and engineers. Here's Richard Paul.

RICHARD PAUL: A really illustrative story is the one of Julius Montgomery. Julius comes to Cape Canaveral to be a range rat. And that means that when a missile misfired, he would go down range with the other guys. And they would find what went wrong, and they would fix it. His first day on the job, he walks in. And this is a time when this area of Florida is completely run by the Ku Klux Klan. The sheriff of Orange County is a Klansman. There are city commissioners who are in the Klan. And Julius opens up the door, and he is faced by a room full of angry white men.

JULIUS MONTGOMERY: Nobody was shaking my hand (laughter). I got to the last fellow. And I said, how are you? I'm Julius Montgomery. And, boy, you don't talk to a white man like that. I said, oh, forgive me, oh, great white bastard (laughter). I really did say that. And he laughed. I laughed, and then we shook hands. And so I said, look; I'm part of the educational program to train you guys to act like people (laughter). You've been acting like rednecks all your life, so you need training, retraining (laughter).

GREENE: Wow, what a moment. Black and white engineers were learning to collaborate within the space program. But co-author Steven Moss says that kind of progress was not easily translating to the outside world, especially in the Jim Crow South.

STEVEN MOSS: Although President Kennedy called for workplace desegregation, making that extend beyond the office was something else entirely. And an example of this is Morgan Watson, who was NASA's first African-American engineer in Huntsville, Ala. And he remembers social and community events in Huntsville of NASA employees never desegregated beyond the gates.

MORGAN WATSON: Once we got outside of Huntsville, we had a very ugly incident in Decatur once at the bus station just trying to get a bite to eat. I'll never forget one of the concerts that we went to. Ray Charles came to Huntsville. And there was this rope right down the center of the arena where he would perform. All the whites were on one side, and the blacks were on the other side. So we knew that on a social scene, everything would be segregated. And we knew on the other hand, on the work scene, you know, that was the view of what was to come. So the space program certainly helped change the South. Not only NASA, but the whole federal government laid the groundwork for blacks to be integrated into the workplace.


GREENE: The last voice we heard there was from Morgan Watson, one of the engineers profiled in a new book about the first African-Americans in the space program. That book is called "We Could Not Fail." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.