July 3, 2014
50th Anniversary Of The Civil Rights Act Of 1964 Celebrated By NASA
Fifty years ago, on July 2, 1964, one of the biggest legal barriers to equal opportunity in America was toppled when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in such areas as voting, public restaurants, employment, and education on the basis of such characteristics as race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. It was a pivotal moment in our nation’s struggle to form “a more perfect union” and transformed the face of America.
As in the Space Race, NASA was in the forefront and began to make changes in its workforce before the law was enacted. In January 1964, the agency took steps to promote equal employment, creating "a contractors’ group in Alabama that used its money and influence to make sure African-Americans got space jobs. NASA hired Charlie Smoot, called the 'first Negro recruiter' in official agency histories, to travel the nation persuading black scientists and engineers to come south. The Marshall Space Flight Center invited representatives of the historically black colleges to Huntsville in 1963, and a year later opened the agency’s college cooperative education program—in which students alternated semesters at school with semesters at Marshall—to blacks." Read "How NASA Joined the Civil Rights Revolution" in Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine.
In many ways, NASA followed the precedent of predecessor, the NACA. "Computer" Katherine Johnson was hired by the NACA in 1953. She, like other female mathematicians known as computers, processed high-speed calculations from flight tests and wind tunnel experiments in the days before mechanical computers. Read her story.
To celebrate their stories and those of many others, NASA hosted a program entitled "50 Years After" on Monday, June 23. Journalist, Suzanne Malveaux moderated a panel discussion and past and present agency employees recounted their personal civil rights remembrances via video vignettes.