In A Nutshell
Most people know Wernher von Braun as the designer of the V-2 rocket, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the ex-Nazi who helped the US get to the moon with Apollo 11. While the media has highlighted his controversial past in recent decades, few people know about his role in supporting civil rights for black people and his advocacy in ending segregation in Alabama. While there could be multiple reasons for the position that he took in the 1950s and 1960s, his efforts contributed positively to the divisive atmosphere of Alabama in the civil rights era.
The Whole Bushel
After the US Office of Special Investigations published a press release in 1984 concerning its research about possible German war criminals among the scientists, technicians, and engineers recruited during Operation Paperclip (after World War II), the reputation of the late Wernher von Braun was at its nadir. Although there had been concerns about his past, neither he, nor NASA ever spoke extensively about his life under the Third Reich.
Most of the public knew only that he was a central player in rocket development in Germany and that he was responsible for the design of the V-2 rockets that rained down on London and Antwerp. Now there was clear evidence that concentration camp slave laborers worked at the Mittelwerk V-2 construction plant.
It is still unclear how much von Braun knew about the horrific conditions, and whether he protested the use of the slave labor. There was also some question of his membership in the Nazi party and the SS; however, evidence shows that the Nazis likely pressured him to join both.
This unpleasant history might have weighed on his conscience when Operation Paperclip transported him to the Deep South to help work on rocket engineering projects for his new employer, the US government. In 1950, the government settled von Braun, the other German technicians, and their families in Huntsville, Alabama. Although there was less racial tension in Huntsville than in other parts of Alabama, it was still a segregated state.
The German engineers, however, didn’t pay too much attention to the racial codes once they settled into the community. Although the state segregated the public tennis courts, they played tennis with the black residents. They even visited black clubs to see local and traveling jazz players.
A 1952 presentation at a local white high school showed how aloof von Braun still was about the racial climate. He recruited seven black college students from Alabama A&M to encourage interest among the high school students in science and engineering. Some of these high school students had said disparaging things (or worse) to their black neighbors. Predictably, the presentation wasn’t as successful as von Braun desired, and most of the students tuned the program out. Still, von Braun wanted to make a difference in Alabama’s youth, no matter their ethnicity.
Ten years later, however, the progress of civil rights and desegregation was still slow in Alabama. The federal government was looking at the situation, and they weren’t pleased. Because of the state’s racial reputation, many professionals, black and white, were hesitant to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA lobbied von Braun, who was the center director, and said that there needed to be increased effort to recruit and retain black professionals, otherwise, NASA might move the center out of the state.
Von Braun explained to his superiors that unfortunately there were not enough scientifically qualified black people in the area. Many black engineers from other states were also hesitant to move to Alabama. Thus, NASA said that the Marshall Space Flight Center would have to grow its talent. Von Braun then helped historically black colleges write grant proposals that would secure funding for a stronger curriculum. Then he met with local contractors to make sure that black applicants had equal opportunity for openings. Finally, NASA decided that there would be a summer jobs program because it might help transition individuals into later full-time positions. Although von Braun didn’t initiate these programs, he readily took to fulfilling NASA’s goals, despite opposition from segregationists.
Von Braun knew that integrated employment at his facility couldn’t be the only solution to the simmering racial tensions. Therefore, he began an even more aggressive campaign for civil rights by the mid-1960s. He spoke to the local Chamber of Commerce, pressing it to conform to the new civil rights laws. Later, he took the stage at Miles College, when the school began construction of a new physics building. Miles College had taken the lead in protests and boycotts in Birmingham, an even more racially volatile city, so it was impressive that this national figure was supporting this small black college. Later, back in Huntsville, he pushed for expanded voting rights. He even attacked Governor Wallace’s defiance of desegregation.
Why did von Braun take the lead on such a controversial issue? While some believe that his past actions in Nazi Germany weighed on his conscience, others believe that his conversion to evangelical Christianity immediately following the war was influencing him. During the 1960s, he met with Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr., and he became increasingly more religious up to his death in 1977. Whatever the reason, he affected the direction of rocketry and the direction of civil rights in Alabama.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: NASA
Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun, by Bob Ward
We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, by Richard Paul, Steven Moss
NPR Berlin: How A Nazi Rocket Scientist Fought For Civil Rights
Air & Space: How NASA Joined the Civil Rights Revolution