[Note: This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis. DLH]
‘Whitey’s on the moon’: why Apollo 11 looked so different to black America
The civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy called Nasa’s moonshot ‘an inhuman priority’ while poor children went hungry
By David Smith in Atlanta
Jul 14 2019
The date was 15 July 1969. As the Saturn V rocket towered over the launchpad, about to send the first men to the moon, two dozen black families from poor parts of the south, accompanied by mules and wagons emblematic of the civil rights movement, marched to the fence of Cape Kennedy in Florida. From a bird’s eye view, they would have resembled dwarves in the wake of a colossus.
They were led by Ralph Abernathy, successor to the slain Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He carried a sign that said bluntly: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” He told a rally 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 civilised nation have failed.”
The Apollo 11 mission has been hailed as humankind’s greatest technological achievement and, after the turmoil of the 1960s, a redemptive moment of national and international unity. Speaking to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in what he described as “the most historic telephone call ever made”, President Richard Nixon declared: “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”
Yet it was myth making then and will be again as America commemorates this month’s 50th anniversary with events, exhibitions and TV specials. The Apollo programme, motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, cost $25.4bn, the equivalent of $180bn today; only the Vietnam war hit taxpayers harder. While Nasa warned Congress “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”, polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the “moondoggle”.
The black press questioned how the price tag could be justified when millions of African Americans were still mired in poverty. Testifying to the US Senate on race and urban poverty in 1966, King had observed “in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence”.
‘An inhuman priority’
The protest march on the eve of Apollo 11’s launch opened a new chapter in the poor people’s campaign, which had built a makeshift city at the National Mall in Washington a year earlier.
Tom Paine, the administrator of Nasa, walked out to meet the demonstrators. An official Nasa history recalls: “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.
“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.
“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’. He added that Nasa’s technical advances were ‘child’s play’ compared to ‘the tremendously difficult human problems’ that concerned the SCLC. He offered the hope that Nasa indeed might contribute to addressing these problems, and then asked Abernathy, a minister, to pray for the safety of the astronauts. Abernathy answered with emotion that he would certainly do this, and they ended this impromptu meeting by shaking hands all around.”
Among the protesters at Cape Kennedy (now know as Cape Canaveral) that day was JT Johnson, a civil rights activist who had been with King in Memphis shortly before he died and became a close aide to Abernathy. “They didn’t want you too close to where it was launching, so we just picked us a spot and decided to have us a rally and started talking and singing – the songs brought us through these difficult times – and we just did what we do,” Johnson recalled in an interview at his home in a suburb of Atlanta.
“At that time, the whole movement was around poverty and poor people so that’s all we talked about: how poor we are and how is this thing going to the moon and spending millions when we don’t have any and some people don’t have a place to live or food to eat, but we still allow all of these things to happen. That was the real protest: billions for the moon and pennies for the poor.”
A project of white America
Johnson is now an 81-year-old grandfather. He’s still politically active and hopes to tell more about the story of the civil rights movement. Wearing a blue T-shirt in his red dining room, he recalled growing up during the era of Jim Crow segregation in Montezuma, Georgia.
“It had a big water fountain downtown with a ‘colored’ sign and a ‘white’ sign when all the water was coming from the same place,” he said. “As a child I couldn’t understand because most of these things didn’t seem fair to me. So the Lord knew that I was going to be in the movement before I did, because I didn’t know it and some of the things I just didn’t like. It wasn’t fair.”
As for so many, King became his lodestar. “When I met Dr King, I thought that was the man I’d been waiting to see for all of my life and I dedicated myself to the civil rights movement.”
In one protest in the 1960s, Johnson and others jumped into a whites-only swimming pool in St Augustine, Florida, only for the hotel owner to pour acid into the pool. After trying to integrate another swimming pool in Albany, Georgia, he was imprisoned for six days and went on hunger strike. In this context, President John F Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed a luxury that America could not afford.
“I think it was all about PR really for the United States and Russia,” he said. “I think this country has never really taken care of people here … African Americans never got their share; they spread it around everybody else.”
Indeed, the Apollo programme gave every impression of being a project of white America. As footage of the era is replayed to mark the semicentennial, it is striking that all 12 people who walked on the moon were white men, and so too the overwhelming majority of officials, engineers and scientists at mission control. The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon summed up: “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.”
Johnson said: “We didn’t hear an invitation; we didn’t get anything. So we thought that was a disgrace and a disrespect to all of us … It was white people that was privileged in this country and they’d made it like that for themselves.”