Not everyone who gathered along Florida’s Space Coast in July 1969 was there just to see a rocket shoot three men into space.
A group of about 500 African American protesters were there with a mission that had nothing to do with space. Their mission involved people here on Earth.
Led by the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the group brought with them mules and wagons “to illustrate the contrast between the gleaming white Saturn V rocket and families who couldn’t afford food or a decent place to live,” History.com wrote.
“I am here to demonstrate with poor people in a symbolic way against the tragic and inexcusable gulf that exists between America’s technological abilities and our social injustices,” Abernathy was quoted as saying.
Abernathy had taken the reins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He and the Poor People’s marchers began to sing “We Shall Overcome” as the media recorded the event. Protesters carried signs reading “$12 a day to feed an astronaut, we could feed a child for $8.”
Abernathy asked to meet with NASA leadership, and administrator Thomas Paine came out the day before the launch. Paine recorded the incident:
After a good deal of chanting, oratory and lining up, the group marched slowly toward us, singing “We Shall Overcome.” In the lead were several mules being led by the Rev. Abernathy, Hosea Williams and other leading members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The leaders came up to us and halted, facing Julian [Scheer] and myself, while the remainder of the group walked around and surrounded us….One fifth of the population lacks adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, [Rev. Abernathy] said. The money for the space program, he stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.
According to History.com, Abernathy had three requests for NASA: that 10 families of his group be allowed to view the launch; that NASA “support the movement to combat the nation’s poverty, hunger and other social problems”; and that NASA technical people work “to tackle the problem of hunger.”
“I stated that if we could solve the problems of poverty in the United States by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow,” Paine said, “then we would not push that button.”
Paine asked Abernathy to pray for the astronauts. Abernathy responded his group “would certainly pray for the safety and success of the astronauts, and that as Americans they were as proud of our space achievements as anybody in the country.”
As Hosea Williams said at the time, “We do not oppose the Moon shot. Our purpose is to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.”
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