'Whitey's on the moon': why Apollo 11 looked so different to black America squib

The civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy called Nasa’s moonshot ‘an inhuman priority’ while poor children went hungry

The date was 15 July 1969. As the Saturn V rocket towered over the launchpad, about to send the first men to the moon, two dozen black families from poor parts of the south, accompanied by mules and wagons emblematic of the civil rights movement, marched to the fence of Cape Kennedy in Florida. From a bird’s eye view, they would have resembled dwarves in the wake of a colossus.

They were led by Ralph Abernathy, successor to the slain Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He carried a sign that said bluntly: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” He told a rally at the site: “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.”

The Apollo 11 mission has been hailed as humankind’s greatest technological achievement and, after the turmoil of the 1960s, a redemptive moment of national and international unity. Speaking to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in what he described as “the most historic telephone call ever made”, President Richard Nixon declared: “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

Yet it was myth making then and will be again as America commemorates this month’s 50th anniversary with events, exhibitions and TV specials. The Apollo programme, motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, cost $25.4bn, the equivalent of $180bn today; only the Vietnam war hit taxpayers harder. While Nasa warned Congress “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”, polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the “moondoggle”.

The black press questioned how the price tag could be justified when millions of African Americans were still mired in poverty. Testifying to the US Senate on race and urban poverty in 1966, King had observed “in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence”.

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