The U.S. moonshot was a global hotshot in 1969. Observe the numbers: 600 million people watched the moon landing on television — a record for television viewership at that time, until 750 million watched the Prince Charles-Lady Diana royal wedding in 1981.
Still, 12 years earlier, the moon discussion was at the center of the universe that July.
However, the man who succeeded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to bring that discussion back down to Earth. The Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, who assumed leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after King was assassinated changed the narrative. Abernathy made the space race about the human race as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of what noted historian Arthur Schlesinger hailed as the most significant event of the 20th century: A person on the moon.
While the rest of the world was counting down the hours, minutes and seconds before Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong blasted off for their date with destiny, Abernathy and about 300 black demonstrators marched in an open field near the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
On July 15, 1969, the day before blastoff, Abernathy took a page out of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which was King’s last major project before he was murdered. Using four battle-worn mules pulling two tattered wagons as visual symbolism of poverty, Abernathy and his followers aimed to spotlight the woes of the world’s less fortunate.
Abernathy was a huge proponent of the moon quest; he also was a huge proponent of NASA diversifying and broadening its effect on the world. As Abernathy said at the time, “I want NASA scientists to tackle problems we face in society.”
In that open field, against the backdrop of the towering, 36-story Apollo 11 rocket, Abernathy met with Thomas O. Paine, then head administrator of NASA, for a little tete-de-tete amid a media crush.
Abernathy placed a circular band around Paine’s neck. Attached to the band was a paper tag with the inscription: “I Helped Hang Poverty.” Then, the discussion, in part, went like this:
Abernathy: “I’m here to demonstrate in a symbolic way the tragic and inexcusable gulf between America’s technological abilities and our social injustice.”
Paine: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here because you invited me to be here and because I want to be here. If it were possible for us tomorrow morning to not push the button and solve the problems to which you are concerned, we would not push the button.”
Then, the diplomatic Paine addressed the issue of NASA and grass-roots America, saying, “We would like to see you hitch your wagons to our rockets and to tell the American people that the NASA program is an indication of what this country can do ... to tackle many of its problems.”
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Afterward, Paine asked Abernathy to pray for Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong before their lunar voyage. Later that day, during a pre-scheduled prayer meeting, Abernathy recognized the three astronauts in a remarkable moment of worship and honor.
Ironically, note that Abernathy was a STEM guy. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alabama State, a historically black college in Montgomery. “My father always loved science,” said his daughter Donzaleigh Abernathy, an actress in Los Angeles.
NASA responded to Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement by establishing various initiatives. According to history professor Neil Maher, NASA, using discoveries from its space technology, performed such duties as tracking urban sprawl, monitoring urban air pollution, and, in concert with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, examining ways to lower urban energy consumption. Also, because the Apollo 11 spacecraft was tremendously adept at maintaining efficient heating and cooling systems, the belief was that those principles would help solve energy issues affecting low-income housing projects.
Were there any immediate practical results of significance produced by Abernathy’s efforts and NASA’s space-age “War on Poverty”?
Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Maher, the history professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and author of the ground-breaking book “Apollo in the Age of Aquarius,” wrote: “Although well-intentioned, (NASA’s contribution) was more performative than permanent, more public relations wishful thinking than a technological dream come true.”
But Tyrone Brooks, a self-described, 23-year-old full-time newbie with the SCLC in that open field that day at Cape Canaveral, said getting noticed counted for something in 1969. “We got the attention of the federal government and Congress,” Brooks said.“And we saw a change; we saw progress.”
In addition, on another level, NASA’s immense technologies that have evolved into spin-offs in the public domain — such as GPS, solar panels, medical-monitoring techniques, cell phone machinery and carbon-monoxide detectors — have benefited us ... worldwide, rich and poor.
As daughter Donzaleigh Abernathy said of her father, who died in 1990, “My dad asked the NASA scientists to help us here on Earth. He was my hero. Not only did he talk the talk, he walked the walk.”
NASA discovered that 50 years ago this July.