While NASA Was Landing on the Moon, Many African Americans Sought Economic Justice Instead

For those living in poverty, the billions spent on the Apollo program, no matter how inspiring the mission, laid bare the nation’s priorities

Ralph Abernathy protests the Apollo 11 mission
Reverend Ralph Abernathy, flanked by associates, stand on steps of a mockup of the lunar module displaying a protest sign while demonstrating at the Apollo 11 launch. Bettmann / Contributor

In anticipation of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, an estimated 8,000 New Yorkers gathered in Central Park, eager to celebrate the moment. The New York Times ran a photograph of the crowd glued to the networks’ broadcasts on three giant screens and described the event as “a cross between a carnival and a vigil.” Celebrants came dressed in white, as encouraged by the city’s parks department. Waiting for the big show, they listened to the Musician’s Union orchestra play space-themed music and watched student artists dance in a “Moon Bubble,” illuminated by ultra-violet light.

That same day, about 50 blocks north, another estimated 50,000 people, predominantly African American, assembled in Harlem for a soul-music showcase in Mount Morris Park headlined by Stevie Wonder, whose “My Cherie Amour” was climbing the Billboard charts. The parks department sponsored this event, too, but the audience was less interested in what was happening in the sky overhead. As the Times reported, “The single mention of the [lunar module] touching down brought boos from the audience.”

The reception in Harlem reflects a broader truth about the Apollo 11 mission and how many black communities viewed it. NASA’s moonshot was costly; author Charles Fishman called it “the largest non-military effort in human history” in a recent interview with NPR. Black publications like the New York Amsterdam News and civil rights activists like Ralph Abernathy argued that such funds—$25.4 billion, in 1973 dollars— would be better spent alleviating the poverty facing millions of African Americans. Spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron's memorable poem “Whitey on the Moon” catalogued a host of genuine hazards and deprivations earthbound African Americans endured while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopped about on the moonscape. “No hot water, no toilets, no lights, while whitey's on the moon” he rapped, adding that “all that money I made last year” went to the race to beat the Soviets to the moon.

In 1969, according to the United States census, the poverty rate for African Americans was 31.1 percent, compared to 9.5 percent for whites, and a full 62 percent of blacks on farms were living in poverty. The day before the Apollo launch, Abernathy, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led a march of 25 poor families to the Kennedy Space Center to protest what he called America’s “distorted sense of national priorities.” In perhaps the most vivid illustration of the gulf between America’s highest technological achievements and the abject poverty of millions of rural blacks, on the day of the launch, newspapers around the country described the scene: The protesters, with farm wagons drawn by four mules, marched across a field to meet the NASA administrator and other agency personnel, with Apollo 11’s 36-story Saturn V rocket on the launch pad in the background. Abernathy and the poor black families who marched with him (totaling as many as 150 people) told NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine the money spent on the impending launch could be better spent feeding people on Earth. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Paine responded by saying, “Poverty is such a great problem that it makes the Apollo program look like child’s play.”

“If it were possible for us not to push that button and solve the problems you are talking about, we would not push that button,” Paine added. During the 20-minute encounter, Abernathy urged Paine to put NASA technologies in service to the poor. While Paine questioned what NASA could immediately do to combat hunger, he agreed the moon mission could inspire the country to band together to tackle its other problems. He told Abernathy, "I want you to hitch your wagon to our rocket and tell the people the NASA program is an example of what this country can do."

While the protest highlighted African Americans’ displeasure with the government’s prioritization of the moon landing, the high cost of space exploration was actually a point of contention across American society. As Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA and former senior official at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, wrote in a 2003 report, “consistently throughout the 1960s, a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost.” Only when it was all-systems-go in July 1969 did one poll show the barest majority supporting the launch, he writes. But the black community was especially willing to point out the hypocrisy of spending on the future while neglecting the present.

A July 27, 1969, New York Times headline announced: “Blacks and Apollo: Most Could Have Cared Less,” and historian David Nye notes that “most black newspapers carried editorials and cartoons attacking the space program.” The Times quoted Victoria Mares, the head of a poverty program in Saginaw, Michigan, who compared the government’s spending on Apollo to “a man who has a large family—they have no shoes, no clothing, no food, and the rent is overdue. But when he gets paid, he runs out and buys himself a set—another set—of electric trains.” Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP, the article states, “called the moon shot, ‘a cause for shame.’” The Times notes that the New York Amsterdam News, one of the nation’s leading black papers, the day after the moon landing, lamented, “Yesterday, the moon. Tomorrow, maybe us.”

The Times article on “Blacks and Apollo” also quoted Sylvia Drew Ivie (then Sylvia Drew), an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who said, “If America fails to end discrimination, hunger, and malnutrition, then we must conclude that America is not committed to ending discrimination, hunger, and malnutrition. Walking on the moon proves that we do what we want to do as a nation.”

Today, Ivie is the assistant to the president of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine, which is named for her father, the pioneering African American surgeon. Reached by phone at her home in Los Angeles, Ivie says she is “less single-minded today than I was then, but the problems I was worried about then are still with us.” At that time, she said, ”My whole focus was solving problems on this planet…I wasn’t so interested in the wonder of scientific exploration.”

Apollo did, though, inspire a generation of minorities and women to reach for the stars. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, said in a recent video interview, “I was like every other kid. I loved space, stars, and dinosaurs.” But with Apollo, she said, “I was really, really irritated that there were no woman astronauts…There are a lot of people who felt left out. They didn’t see themselves so they didn’t see the connection back to them.”

Jemison, in the same video, credits Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek,” with “help[ing] me to say, yes, this is something reasonable to think about.” Nichols herself stated in a 2011 NPR interview that she had considered leaving the show after its first season for a role on Broadway, but that it was Martin Luther King who convinced her to stay for the symbol she represented to the country. Nichols later played a major role in NASA recruitment, stating in a 1977 recruitment film, “I’m speaking to the whole family of humankind, minorities and women alike. If you qualify and would like to be an astronaut, now is the time.”

While some African Americans did indeed work on the Apollo mission, they were largely relegated to the shadows—in 1969, Jet criticized NASA for “the poorest minority hiring records [sic] among U.S. agencies.” Today, thanks largely to the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, more Americans know about the role of Katherine Johnson and other African American women “computers” in the space race. NASA’s website calls Johnson’s calculations “critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing.” Forty years after Abernathy confronted Administrator Paine at Kennedy Space Center, an African American president appointed an African American astronaut, General Charles Bolden, to head NASA.

Likewise, one of today’s greatest public champions for space research and exploration is an African American man, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Asked by a listener on his radio program, Star Talk, to state the most significant thing the Apollo program achieved (with the exception of landing on the moon), Tyson emphasized its role in inspiring the nation’s environmental movement: the founding of Earth Day, the creation of NOAA and the EPA, the passage of the comprehensive Clean Air and Water Acts, the banning of leaded gas and DDT, and the introduction of the catalytic converter. “Though we went to the moon to explore the moon,” he said, “upon getting there and looking back, in fact, we would discover Earth for the first time.”

Ivie appreciates the greater diversity at NASA today. Her cousin, Frederick Drew Gregory, was among the first African American astronauts in space. But she believes the United States could have walked on the moon and pulled Americans out of poverty at the same time. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have enough money to do both [in 1969], we just didn’t have a desire to do both...And I think we are still lacking that will, though there is more interest in it today.” She pointed out, “In Watts, when we had the revolt in ‘65, we had one grocery store. This is 2019. We still have one grocery store in Watts.”

As for the digital age, which Fishman says Apollo ushered in, and the environmental consciousness that Tyson attributes to the moon landing, Ivie is noncommittal. “I think it’s splendid to have someone African American be the teacher on public television about all these things. I think that’s really fantastic,” she says. “What it says is, the Earth and the stars are as mysterious and wonderful to us as they are to every other group, and we can learn about them and we can learn from them. We’re all members of the planet Earth together. That’s a huge message… But it doesn’t help us get a grocery store in Watts.”

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