NASA Freedom Riders!
Grady’s Space Chronicles
NASA Freedom Riders!
This account of events is documented in honor of all those who helped and especially the employees from Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, who "volunteered" to ride buses to Selma, Alabama. They marched in Martin Luther King's Freedom Rider's March, for voters rights in the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Deputy Administrator George Low, conceded that “Equal Opportunity is a sham in NASA,” and derided the Agency’s “total insensitivity to human rights and human beings.”
NASA Director James Webb directed Dr. von Braun (File: Webb to von Braun, 24 June 1963, Minority Groups folder, NASA History Division Documents Collection, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC), to give personal attention to developing equal employment opportunity programs at Marshall.
Marshall’s achievements in fostering equal opportunity from 1963 to 1965 resulted from pressure from Washington. Webb had NASA agencies charged to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and occasionally the White House pressured Marshall to change. A Directive to do more in the State, made sure that Marshall’s help was given.
Very few knew about the employees of the Marshall Space Flight Center contributing to the civil rights movement for voting rights. They marched with Dr. Martin Luther King's Freedom March in Selma of 1965. In February, 1965, a Directive was issued to MSFC, that ordered all nonessential personnel not working on priority projects, is to participate in a week end trip by bus, to march with Dr. Martin Luther King's Dallas County voter registration Freedom March in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The Directive stated that buses would leave Building 4610 at 9 AM, Friday, and return immediately after the Sunday event, before the beginning of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
I was in my office and was summoned to the Plastic Lab on a problem, I was going out the office door when my boss called me. He just left one employee and had a brown folder in his hands. He said, “Here, initial this.” Holding it up to my face to read and urging me, as he yelled to another employee to see him. I quickly read over it and indicated not to volunteer and initialed it. Normally, it would be routed, but the boss kept it in his hands. I would have like to made a copy of it. The Directive came in the Memorandum Form (no letter head). It was action between Organization Codes though deputies and assistants. I did not know the strange sending code. I did recognize the receiving Code, it was MSFC’s Code MS-CH, Victor Sorensen’s Management Services Office.
A comment was attached saying that this was a Directive and all personnel that could be spared will participate with information about buses, pick up times and dates for a trip to Selma, Alabama. It required that each employee initial and acknowledge the notice. A local Division routing slip with our organization codes was also attached. It was felt that von Braun knew about the Directive, Mr. Sorensen would not have allowed it to be routed with out von Braun‘s knowledge.
There were conspiracies and actions from Washington that was disseminated using the middle level organization offices without a lot of the German Rocket Team’s knowledge. The Directive was routed through the offices and not the shops with very little volunteer results. It was rumored this support was for Dr. King and was assured by President Johnson at Attorney General Kennedy's request. Getting a white mix in Selma's march by using federal employees as "volunteers," would be appreciated. No blacks were registered in Dallas County and none could vote. The voter registration "Test" was impossible when administer.
Some MSFC contractor personnel "offered" to join the ride to Selma. Some said it was more likely they were ordered to ride the buses. It would be a good business relationship move for the local contractors. Everyone felt uneasy for their safety and what might happen in Selma. I remembered presenting a strong case to my supervisors, that I was too busy with projects on engines, explosives and were preparing to launch SA-8 with Pegasus 2 Satellite, I was on call by KSC as Launch Coordinator for support. They finally agreed and I was excused. Five buses were sent but only three bus loads left for the Freedom March in Selma, when mustered, the marchers become 3200 strong. The riders and MSFC employees felt fear from the people and police in Selma. Those that found out, the German scientists were very quiet about this and were awed by the Directive that caused such a disruption in our space program.
That Sunday, March 7, 1965, was America's worst since December 7, 1941. War was on the streets of Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I had been at the foot of that bridge and toured the Confederacy's Capital, President Jeff Davis, headquarters. A small three room building in the heartland of the South. I had stayed at the hotel near the bridge and made reservation there for myself and some co-workers. Just hours before departure, I got myself out of the trip due to a phone call from Dr. Albert Zeiler, KSC Launch Engineer and my Co-Cape Coordinator, requested a deferment due to Cape work for me on Saturn SA-8 launch.
On Monday, March 8, 1965, many of those returning were badly beaten up and suffered injuries with limbs in casts, bandages and black eyes from the State Troopers and Sheriff Posse's tear gas and Billy clubs. A few that worked with in our Quality Assurance Laboratory, my inspector that was sent to do source inspections of explosives and solid rocket motors as well as his Branch Head, were surprisingly involved the ride and was hurt.
During the following days when in meetings or seeing our beat-up workers, no one said anything to them at all. Some had been jailed. We all knew they were in Selma on Bloody Sunday and we admired them for taking it for all of us at MSFC who were lucky to be excused. The pressure placed on these faithful NASA employees who were made to march pressures were great. Each should have been given a purple heart and injury pay. Instead, it was kept a secret with no public record.
When the march was continued to Montgomery on March 11, a night drive-by highway shooting killed a white lady from the North and prompted President Johnson on March 15, to asked congress in a night session to pass the Voter Law Act of 1965. But no new Law was coming from Washington to prevent or protect federal employees, to be used in this kind of derangement.
MSFC employees helped pass the Voting Rights Act, on August 6, 1965, when they stood up for freedom and for all Americans. Accounts of the MSFC action was not made Public. Recognition should be made and thanks be given. The story should be on display at Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center’s Museum for all to know. The public and MSFC employees would be swollen with pride. I did send a copy of this account to the Archivist and Director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama. I had already requested a search of the archives for any document or accounts on this subject. The Archivist found nothing and did not accept these accounts nor indicate the need to honor MSFC’s Freedom Riders. It is not known if other NASA Centers provided Freedom Riders for Selma's Martin L. King Freedom March.
On November 5, 2008, Newspaper headlines were, “Landmark Historical Victory,” with an landslide November 4th election, millions of Americans in huge turnout, elected the first African-American for President of the United States, Barack Obama, a former U.S. Senator from the State of Illinois.
At the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, the African-American’s right to vote started with Dr. Martin Luther King's Freedom March in Selma in 1965. Barack Obama gave hope to bring the Nation together. A people without a vote, is a people without hope. A people with hope, is a people with a future. It’s The Beginnings!