NASA in the “Long” Civil Rights Movement Symposium

by Brian C. Odom, NASA

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the University of Alabama, Huntsville History Department hosted the “NASA in the ‘Long’ Civil Rights Movement” symposium earlier this year. The event was held 16-17 March at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama and included twenty-two presentations on a wide range of topics addressing issues of race, gender, and labor as they related to the space program during the period of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The goal of this symposium was to provide more context for the voices and stories and, subsequently, develop a better understanding, of the intersection of NASA and the Civil Rights Movement. The concept of a “long” Civil Rights Movement was drawn from Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” which extended the chronological scope of the Movement.

The presentations were stimulating and incredibly diverse in topical and geographic scope. Dr. Brenda Plummer (University of Wisconsin, Madison) gave an enlightening talk on the “intersection of the struggle for racial equality and aerospace exploration, as both constituted potent narratives of freedom in the American imaginary.” Dr. Plummer disputed the assumption that NASA was an “instrument of modernization” that was “implicitly allied with the Civil Rights Movement.” NASA Chief Historian, Dr. Bill Barry, presented an overview of how the US’s struggle over civil rights and the space program was viewed—and used—by the Soviet Union, and National Air and Space Museum curator Dr. Cathleen Lewis explored how this conflict reemerged in the 1980s with the race between the US and the Soviet Union to place the first person of color into space.

Several of the papers took a comparative approach. Tim Pennycuff (University of Alabama at Birmingham) detailed how massive amounts of federal funds pouring into Birmingham for research, health training, and medical treatment (like the funding that would later arrive with the Apollo Program) provided both a justification and a mandate for integration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, while Marsha Freeman examined earlier efforts at desegregation in the region by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Dr. Matthew Downs (University of Mobile) argued that in Huntsville, civic and business leaders moderated their stance on desegregation and “accommodated the forces of change” out of economic necessity. A final panel discussion examined ways those engaged in public history can create more inclusive narratives and collections going forward. In his talk, “And Where Do We Go from Here? Ensuring the Past and Future History of Space,” Dr. Jonathan Coopersmith (Texas A&M University) highlighted the problematic aspects of locating and preserving materials generated by minority movements.

The symposium was open to the public, which led to many welcome and productive conversations on a difficult topic. The interplay between the audience and panelists created a forum for drawing parallels between the era of the Civil Rights Movement and current discussions of equal employment in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Veronica Henderson, a symposium moderator and interim Head Archivist at Alabama A&M University, one of the US’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, commented that, “As historians, we are able to add layers to the conversation, to connect the dots. Having historians get together and relate the different stories to a point in history, we can uncover more. We can explore things not previously thought about or considered, and putting these stories into context allows us to see things from a different point of view.” With the recent interest in stories like those of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, as portrayed in the film Hidden Figures, it is hoped that we can continue to add new voices and greater historical context to such a critical topic.