Hundreds of Black families from poor areas of the South marched to the Kennedy Space Center gates on July 15, 1969, as the US government prepared to send the first men to the moon. The party, largely African Americans totaling around 500, was headed by civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded the assassinated Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with mules and wagons symbolic of the civil rights campaign (SCLC).
The group had arrived at the Center a day before the Apollo launch to protest America’s “distorted sense of national priorities,” as Abernathy put it. “$12 a day to feed an astronaut,” he remarked, holding up a protest banner. For $8, we could feed a hungry child.” “We may move on from this day to Mars and Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond,” Abernathy told the demonstrators, “but as long as racism, poverty, starvation, and war continue on the Earth, we as a civilized society have failed.”
The Apollo 11 mission is widely regarded as one of the most significant technological achievements in history. Given the unrest of the 1960s, it was also perceived as a moment of unification. The program’s exorbitant cost was concerning, and it was spurred by the space race against the Soviet Union.
It cost $25.4 billion, or $180 billion today. Civil rights leaders like Abernathy and black journals like the New York Amsterdam News argued that such cash would be better spent feeding the impoverished and hungry, as well as addressing other issues that many African Americans face.
The poverty rate for African Americans was 31.1 percent in 1969, compared to 9.5 percent for Whites, according to the US census. As a result, when Alabama-born Baptist preacher Abernathy led the protests to the Kennedy Space Center on July 15, his message was simple: the billions spent on the Apollo program should be used to help many people, particularly African Americans.
They began singing “We Shall Overcome” as NASA administrator Thomas Paine approached the NASA boundary to meet Abernathy and the demonstrators.
According to an official NASA history, “Paine stood coatless beneath an overcast sky, escorted alone by Nasa’s press secretary, as Abernathy came with his company, moving slowly and singing We Shall Overcome.” “As emblems of rural poverty, several mules were in the lead. After that, Abernathy offered a brief speech. He bemoaned the plight of the impoverished in the country, claiming that one-fifth of the population lacked basic food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. He claimed that space flight was an inhuman priority in the face of such misery.
He insisted that the cash be used to feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the ill, and house the destitute, according to NASA history.
“We would not push the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow if we could address the issues of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow,” Paine said.
The two men conversed for nearly 20 minutes. According to Smithsonian, Abernathy, who had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, encouraged Paine to “put NASA technologies in service to the impoverished.” Before they parted ways, Paine expressed his hope that NASA could help address the issues raised by Abernathy. He also asked the minister to pray for the astronauts’ safety.
Abernathy agreed, and the two exchanged handshakes. According to a UPI story, Abernathy remarked, “On the eve of man’s finest venture, I am tremendously touched by the nation’s achievements in space and the valor of the three men sailing for the moon.” “What we can do for space and exploration, we insist that we do for starving people,” he continued.
Many Black newspapers that published anti-space program editorials and cartoons agreed with him, as did many historians and other Black figures. According to the New York Times, the NAACP’s executive director, Roy Wilkins, termed the broadcast “a reason for shame.”
“Last night, the moon. “Perhaps us tomorrow,” the New York Amsterdam News speculated the day following the moon landing. “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,” Gil Scott-Heron said in a spoken-word critique of the space missions called “Whitey on the Moon,” with all 12 people who walked on the moon being White men and the majority of officials at mission control also being White.
Years after Paine and Abernathy met, NASA attempted to follow through on the pledges made by their members on the eve of the Apollo mission. “NASA engineers modified sensors formerly used to identify pollutants in space capsules to measure urban air pollution,” according to History. Another concept used spacecraft insulation to create new types of public housing walls and windows.”
NASA’s move, according to Neil Maher, author of 2017’s Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, was “more of an advertisement campaign.” Despite the fact that Apollo inspired minorities and women to pursue careers in space science and exploration, millions of Americans continue to go hungry and live in poverty today, despite the fact that NASA now has a more diverse workforce.
“This country is still the same, people are still impoverished and hungry, and that has not been corrected,” JT Johnson, a civil rights activist who was among the demonstrators outside the Kennedy Space Center, told the Guardian recently.
“Well, here we are again, playing the same game…”