NASA And The Long Civil Rights Movement edited by Brian C. Odom and Stephen P. Waring (book review)

When I saw ‘NASA And The Long Civil Rights Movement’ edited by Brian C. Odom and Stephen P. Waring, I was looking more at the title than the price. Generally, university books have expensive hardbacks and a cheaper softcover a year later. No doubt, as a university book, the universities are likely to buy their copies first for their libraries and less likely to get dogeared. I should point out that there are twelve writers here so you’ll have to forgive me as I treat them as a collective when it comes to history than any individual point of view which tends to be consistent.

In many respects, both NASA and the American Civil Rights Movement go hand in hand when in 1969, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference camped at Cape Kennedy protesting about expensive ‘spacerides’ when children were dying of hunger. NASA administrator Thomas O. Payne assured their leader, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, that if he could remove the Earth’s problems of poverty by not pressing the launch button that he would do so. Instead, he openly allowed 150 of them into the NASA compound to watch the Apollo 11 launch and to spread their message. A significant moment.

Looking back at the political status back around the early Apollo missions, I was much younger and, in the UK, didn’t see much of the racism from the USA in the press. Considering NASA had to be built near the equator, it was bringing fresh thoughts into the deep south when it brought in new industries and found the black community were continually being relegated to menial jobs. The blacks were actually barred from studying physics and engineering, two qualifications needed to become an astronaut, speaks for itself. Further into the book, this goes back even further in their education and to discourage such aspirations in the south. These chapters will make you think, including some white NASA employees being seriously attacked for having black friends. This book will really make you think but NASA’s presence did start changing things. A rather potent note is Buzz Aldrin attending a march honouring Martin Luther King’s life.

Don’t think this book is just about racism, it also extends to women not getting into the astronaut program although that changed as well. If anything, NASA was changing things trying to attract all kinds of people wanting anyone based on intelligence than race or sex. Retrospectively, you do have to wonder if this current time that it hasn’t finished changing yet. The fact that the likes of human computer Katherine Johnson getting recognition fifty years later speaks for itself. The lady on the cover is Jeannette Scissum, another living computer like Johnson, who worked at NASA.

Science Fiction gets a mention here. Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler are mentioned as the only black SF writers. I have to confess when I first read Delaney, I had no idea what colour he was but liked his writing. In many respects, fiction doesn’t discriminate in anything other than talent. I do wonder how many of colour are into SF, though, and having so few successful black authors isn’t a good indictment. We’ve only ever had one black reviewer and then he told me and I would like more if they were available. My selection is based on willingness to read and review and sorting out any rough spots in the writing. This book will make you think about your own part in not being discriminating for the wrong reasons.

I’m not sure how much discrimination goes on in SF but I don’t think it’s ever in just one part of society across the world. We all know Nichell Nicols was recruited to get more woman and of colour into NASA by visiting schools to encourage education. More surprising, when you think of his background, was Wernher Von Braun so heavily involved in getting more black people into NASA’s higher posts.

With the USSR wanting to be the first in so much at the start of the space race, they also had the first ethnic astronaut with Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez in 1980. If you want a little test without looking on the Net first, name the first African American astronaut or the 13 that followed. I suspect even the black community can’t do it neither. I would hope when there is a manned trip back to the Moon, we really need a black man to be the first to put his foot down on the surface first. That would make the most effect and have a name in the history books.

Oddly, while I was going through this I found that there have only been 11 Chinese and 59 women astronauts out of 833 people who’ve been into space. It is an exclusive club of sorts, mostly because of the cost of training and payload.

Don’t buy this book expecting to see extended histories of those people who’ve achieved such goals. As the book title should remind you, it is a about achieving equal rights, not just for people of colour but also for women as well. I tend to agree with them that NASA have helped towards this but it has been an upended struggle. It is only an accident of birth that determines our colour and sex and we should never discriminate. From reading this book, the USA have had the worse problems and I hate to say, especially under the current political regime, is still bubbling under over there and a long way to change. Read and learn and move towards change in all of this.

GF Willmetts

December 2019

(pub: University Press Of Florida. 252 page slightly illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £92.50 (UK), $85.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8130-6620-2)

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