Behind the iconic moments when Michael Jordan wore the Bred Air Jordan 11s The “Breds” have a special place in sneaker culture and basketball history — now, they’re back for a retro release

Scottie Pippen wandered in awe. Phil Jackson embraced the tie-dye-haired Dennis Rodman. And Ahmad Rashad, microphone in hand, searched the celebratory abyss for the man of the hour: Michael Jordan.

But Jordan wasn’t to be found on the court shortly after the Chicago Bulls defeated the Seattle SuperSonics 87-75 in Game 6 of the 1996 NBA Finals to claim their fourth title in six years. Jordan had left the United Center’s hardwood floor, made his way through the arena tunnel and settled in Chicago’s locker room.

“Michael came in by himself, laid on the floor and started crying,” recalled Barry Gossage, one of the first photographers inside the locker room after the Bulls won.

It was June 16, 1996 — two years and eight months after Jordan announced his first retirement from the NBA, which he spent pursuing a career in Major League Baseball. Following a 17-month hiatus from basketball, Jordan returned to the Bulls in March 1995, just in time for the playoffs. Chicago lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals that year, but responded with a historic 72-10 record during the 1995-96 regular season that culminated in the team beginning its second three-peat that decade.

Jordan once again reached the mountaintop, but this time in bittersweet fashion. The Bulls clinched the ’96 Finals on Father’s Day, nearly three years after Jordan’s dad, James R. Jordan Sr., was tragically murdered. For the first time in his life, Jordan — who became just the second player in NBA history after Willis Reed in 1970 to be named the MVP of the All-Star Game, regular season and Finals in the same year — partook in a championship celebration without his father.

The live NBC broadcast cut to Jordan sprawled across the locker room floor. His championship hat had fallen off his head, yet he still clinched the game ball he snatched from teammate Toni Kukoč at the buzzer. After 37 seconds of footage displayed a choked-up Jordan, the cameraman capturing the video was escorted out of the room. Gossage, still inside, hesitated at first, but lifted his camera and snapped a few photos.

“I only shot two or three frames and kind of just let him be. When I saw how emotional he was, I let him have his moment,” said Gossage, now the team photographer for the Phoenix Suns. “He just wanted to be by himself. I was just lucky enough to be there … I was the only one who got that photo.”

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls celebrates winning the 1996 NBA championship after defeating the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 16, 1996, at the United Center in Chicago.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s an image that’s especially revered in sneaker culture. On Jordan’s feet in the picture is a pair of his iconic red, black and white signature Air Jordan 11s, known as the “Breds.” Jordan rocked the shoes exclusively during ’96 playoffs, and the night the Bulls won the title marked the final time His Airness laced them up in an NBA game. Now — appropriately, 23 years later — the “Bred” Air Jordan 11s are back.

On Thursday, the Jordan Brand announced the shoes will drop on Dec. 14 for just the fifth time in history, dating to retro releases in 2012, 2009 and 2001, following the initial release in 1996. Most notably, for the first time since they debuted, the Bred 11s are set to return in true OG form, down to the same box the kicks came in when Jordan wore them during his emotional and ultimately redemptive title run through the ’96 Finals.

“The shoe brings back memories,” Gentry Humphrey, vice president of Jordan Footwear, told The Undefeated, “of the NBA Finals, the NBA playoffs, and MJ — in the peak of his career.”


Before the Bred Air Jordan 11s first hit stores on March 22, 1996, a sporting goods store in Memphis, Tennessee, received 200 phone calls a day inquiring about Jordan’s new sneakers, according to a story published in The Commercial Appeal.

Almost a year had passed since Jordan debuted the Air Jordan 11 silhouette — the first basketball shoe to incorporate patent leather — in a white and black colorway with subtle purple accents, dubbed the “Concords.” In February 1996, during the NBA All-Star Game in San Antonio, Jordan introduced a new colorway of the 11s called the “Columbias” — another predominantly white shoe with an icy Carolina blue sole.

But the Breds resonated differently. “This all-black number with patent leather and a fiery red sole isn’t just any Air Jordan,” reads an April 1996 report from The News & Observer in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. “Area retailers say it is the best-selling shoe they’ve ever carried.”

The sneakers, listed at a retail price of $124.99 a pair plus tax, sold out at a Champs Sports store in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 40 minutes. Chicago’s Niketown store ran out of stock in five minutes. Even in Toledo, Ohio, young kids hunting for the Breds “hovered impatiently outside locked mall doors — cash and credit cards in hand — at 8 a.m., two hours before the mall’s usual opening time,” according to a Toledo Blade story.

Ray Allen, then a 20-year-old junior at the University of Connecticut, can’t forget the first time he saw the Breds.

“I just remember thinking how I was going to wear the shoes out to the club after I hopped in them,” Allen, a 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, told The Undefeated. He was drafted three months after the shoe dropped, and during his rookie NBA season became the first player to sign an endorsement deal with what ultimately became the Jordan Brand. “The Bred AJ11 is a standout shoe,” Allen continued. “The colorway alone brings back memories of the original AJ1 and is a nod to the beginning of sneaker culture in the NBA and basketball.”

The crazy thing is, folks went bananas for the Bred 11s before Jordan even wore them in a single game. He didn’t break the shoes out for the first time until April 26, 1996 — Game 1 of a first-round NBA playoffs series between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.

“The memories flooding back of MJ debuting the AJ11 Bred during the NBA playoffs in 1996 really represents what is so special about this shoe,” Allen said. “To be able to remember exactly what I was doing and what was happening when the shoe was debuted on-court is a huge tribute to the impact and legacy of MJ and the shoe itself.”

There was actually a method behind the madness of Jordan’s long wait to debut the Breds. Before the playoff opener against the Heat, he approached Bulls head coach Phil Jackson with an idea. Jordan wanted every player on the team to begin Chicago’s championship chase wearing black socks and shoes. Jackson obliged.

“MJ preferred to wear black-based shoes at playoff time as he knew his focus would need to be a little more menacing,” said Humphrey, who tuned in the night the Bulls came out in all-black everything on their feet. “It had a similar shock and awe to when the Fab Five debuted black socks and black shoes. The entire team wore them but MJ himself, his shoes stood out because of pops of white and red. …

“I also remember that it was a long night for Rex Chapman, who had to guard MJ.”

Chapman and Jordan had become quite familiar with each other over the years. Back when the shooting guard for the Heat was a senior in high school, he received a call from the young Bulls star, at the request of legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, trying to persuade Chapman to sign with the Tar Heels. After playing two seasons at the University of Kentucky, Chapman entered the NBA in 1988 and shared the same agent, David Falk, with Jordan — by the mid-’90s, Chapman was also a Nike athlete.

During the ’95-96 NBA regular season, Chapman helped the Heat hand the virtually unbeatable Bulls one of its 10 losses. In that game — a 113-104 Miami win over Chicago on Feb. 23, 1996 — Chapman dropped 39 points on Jordan. But the playoffs two months later proved to be a different story.

“I had Michael’s full attention,” Chapman, now a broadcaster and Twitter personality, told The Undefeated about the night MJ debuted the Breds, which also marked Chapman’s first career playoff game. “He’s already way better than everybody. He’s already the most beautiful-looking athlete on the planet and now he’s got the dopest shoes of all time? C’mon.”

Jordan dropped 35 points on Chapman and the Heat that night, and went on to play in the Bred 11s in all 18 of Chicago’s games during the ’96 playoffs, averaging 30.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists. In Game 6 of the Finals against the Sonics, his last performance in the sneakers, Jordan scored a team-high 22 points while adding nine rebounds and seven assists. He was truly worthy of the game ball he held onto for dear life when Gossage immortalized Jordan’s moment of raw emotion — and those heralded shoes — on camera.

Longtime NBA photographer Andy Bernstein (now the director of photography for the Staples Center) also captured a memorable photo of the Breds during the postgame Finals festivities. After Jordan’s teammates, coaches and family joined him in the locker room, where champagne and cigars circulated, he unlaced his sneakers and continued the celebration.

Michael Jordan (center) of the Chicago Bulls celebrates against the Seattle SuperSonics during Game 6 of the 1996 NBA Finals on June 20, 1996, at the United Center in Chicago.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Berstein took a picture of Jordan with his 5-year-old son Marcus and 7-year-old son Jeffrey. Surrounding them were pairs of MJ’s “Bred” Air Jordan 11s — the sneakers that every kid once wanted, and soon will be after again.

“It seemed like Michael was trying to save the shoes for some reason,” Bernstein said. “Who knows? Maybe he was superconscious of the importance of them.”

O.J. Simpson’s first months on Twitter show why he’ll never leave the public eye For a man who’s been famous most of his life, and loathed for the last quarter century, abstaining from public notoriety was never an option

Football icon. Movie star. Pitchman. Father. Spousal abuser. Stand-up comedy fodder. Family Guy character. Disgraced author and accused killer. Social media personality is just the latest in a lifetime of hats that O.J. Simpson has donned.

The 72-year-old former tailback now spends his days filter-free at Las Vegas golf courses, restaurants and presumably his place of residence, waxing poetic about the world from his Twitter handle @TheRealOJ32. “If you don’t see it here,” his Twitter bio reads, “I didn’t say it.” His account is unverified, although the disturbing charm in his tagline — “Hey, Twitter world. It’s yours truly.” — essentially serves as his own blue check.

He has more than 912,000 followers. Of the 24 accounts he follows, most are sports-related, such as television networks, his former teams and, ironically, the Heisman Trophy. Simpson also keeps timeline tabs on running backs Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, Chris Johnson, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Davis.

The Undefeated Roundtable: Justin Tinsley debates O.J. Simpson’s Twitter relevance and advice to Antonio Brown with Lonnae O’Neal and Domonique Foxworth

“I laughed for 20 minutes when I found out O.J. joined Twitter. If you ever wanted to know when it’s time to leave Twitter, this was it,” said comedian Roy Wood Jr. “It’s like when your mom added you on Facebook and you were like, ‘I want to avoid that nonsense.’ ”

Welcomed or not, since Simpson created his account in June, his topics have been on-brand and peculiar: the Democratic presidential debates, fantasy football, free speech, Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout, trolling the Miami Dolphins’ front office and more.

Just last week, Simpson filmed himself at a golf course offering wide receiver Antonio Brown legal advice that would’ve been hilarious if it weren’t so sobering. More than 1.6 million people watched him say, “They told me that when you’re in a civil or criminal litigation, and you’re the person they’re coming after, the best thing you can do is say nothing. Be quiet. Essentially shut up.”

Like his critique of Brown, Simpson’s most interactive tweets come when he addresses polarizing sports topics. Especially when he aligns them with his imploding fantasy team that features the recently retired Andrew Luck (and Brown).

“You could have retired an hour and half ago, before I picked you in my fantasy picks. I mean, what did I do? I’ve been a fan of yours. Why would you do this to me? Come out of retirement,” Simpson told Luck on Aug. 24. The Luck tweet received 5.7 million views, 65,582 likes and 15,363 retweets.

Simpson uses Twitter by forgoing 240 characters for his own face. Watching his videos is an experience in moment-by-moment contradiction. He’s still charismatic. He’s as natural in front of the camera now as he was doing NFL sideline coverage or as Detective Nordberg in the Naked Gun comic film series alongside actor Leslie Nielsen. But you’re still reminded of what he’s done and what he’ll always be accused of doing.

His account is unverified — although the disturbing charm in his tagline — “Hey, Twitter world. It’s yours truly.” — essentially serves as his own blue check.

“He’s used Twitter almost exclusively for video content. It tells me a lot about how O.J. conducts himself in the public eye,” said Saida Grundy, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University. “It’s as though he’s auditioning to get back to being a sports commentator. He’s like, ‘This is my second wind, right?’ ”

As history has revealed, with Simpson, what’s seen in public is impossible to discuss without an examination of his personal life. Nearly 24 years have passed since Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995. Eleven years have passed since his conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. In October 2017, he was released from Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center.

Since then, Simpson has lived a tame life. And now it feels like he’s campaigning for reconsideration. As if he wants to make the social media generation question everything written and reported about him since 1994. Did I miss something? This is why he was so beloved?

“I don’t think a network is going to touch him,” said Jaia Thomas, a sports and entertainment lawyer based in Los Angeles. “I do think this is his way of positioning himself to do something else in sports or entertainment, but it’s going to have to be something he self-starts.

“Aside from his criminal activity, we can’t deny the fact that he is a personality. He does have that exuberance to him that can easily attract folks to follow him. Sometimes it just doesn’t take a lot for us to forget someone’s past, or to overlook them, for a 30-second video.”

Wood added: “He knows the game of football, he still might be able to tell you which wide receiver is gonna have a good game, but it ain’t gonna lead to [him] sitting next to Chris Berman and Tom Jackson breaking down games. O.J. needs to lay low.”

As Simpson stutter-steps his way through his curated timeline, it becomes clear that for a man who’s been famous most his life, and loathed for the last quarter century, abstaining from public notoriety was never an option.

Simpson uses Twitter by forgoing 240 characters for his own face. Watching his videos is an experience in moment-by-moment contradiction.

“I don’t think O.J. exists outside of the white public gaze, and he can’t stay away from that adoration,” said Grundy. “And when you have such an unrepentant history of domestic abuse in your private life, you rely upon the public to create the counter to that image. He still needs us to believe he’s the character called O.J. Simpson.”

Simpson didn’t construct this character all by himself, of course. American culture is obsessed with celebrities, and the nature of that obsession has changed since Simpson’s famous trial. The journal Cyberpsychology published a study stating that the thirst toward celebrity culture shifted between 1997 and 2007, credited to the expansion of the internet. In 1997, fame was ranked 15th out of 16 values when studying the sitcoms that 9- to 11-year-olds deemed popular, such as Boy Meets World and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A decade later, in shows such as Hannah Montana and American Idol, fame was the dominant value. Following it were achievement, image, popularity and financial success.

So the ground was already fertile for Simpson to flourish. An award-winning TV series (FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and documentary (ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America) both took his name through the ringer. More than 3.4 million viewers watched the premiere episode of Made In America, proof that the appetite for “The Story of O.J.” is insatiable. And Simpson has no issue satisfying the demand.

“I really do believe this is O.J. watching himself through us. I think he’s addicted to that,” said Grundy. “It’s like his own porn. He exists seeing himself being seen.”

Simpson’s Twitter account gained followers even as the debate around “cancel culture” has heated up — a conversation Simpson has been tied to well before the phrase became a permanent part of the public lexicon. In essence, this is the act of getting someone out of the paint or stripping a celebrity of their cultural cache. The idea has existed for decades, although the practice has come under debate as celebrity transgressions, both past and present, frequently play out on social media.

Criminal accusations against R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, for instance, barely scratched pop culture’s surface for years — until the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries released in January and a joke about the allegations against Cosby from comedian Hannibal Buress helped turn the tables into legal action.

Being canceled via social media doesn’t always equate to professional cancellation, though. Director Woody Allen continues to finance his own projects despite a decades-long allegation of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. Or witness the continued debate around Michael Jackson after the documentary Leaving Neverland detailed Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of two boys. Some believe it’s character assassination of a dead icon. Others grapple with rethinking everything they thought they knew about a man whose music defined multiple generations. “Cancel culture is not really canceling anyone,” said Grundy. “O.J. is not canceled, and he knows that.”

Wood makes a similar point: “O.J. Simpson has been canceled, re-canceled and triple-canceled and he’s just oblivious to it. He doesn’t acknowledge it,” he said. “If you ever wanted proof that you don’t necessarily have to obey cancel culture, it’s O.J.! O.J. just walks right back in like, ‘Nah, no big deal.’ ”

As Simpson continues to experiment with Twitter, what he won’t find is wide-scale empathy — if that’s a treasure he seeks. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever collectively decide to let bygones be bygones for Simpson. That would require that he acknowledge his past. At this point, there are 900,000 reasons that it’s difficult to envision he ever would.

When Ali met Marciano in a battle of undefeated heavyweights The two champs met for a ‘Super Fight’ put together by a DJ and a computer

On the morning of his 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali sat in his hotel room watching a film of Rocky Marciano challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title 15 years earlier. Ali leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, watching intently until a bloodied and trailing Marciano knocked Walcott out in the 13th round with a short, emphatic right. Then Ali turned to his manager, Angelo Dundee.

“Angelo, the man’s tough,” said Ali, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated. “He’d be hell to fight. I’d wear him at the end of my glove for 10 rounds but he’d still be coming. Meanwhile, I’d be tired — maybe too tired to dance — and Rocky would be throwing punches … that wouldn’t be no fight — that would be a war.”

Marciano was already the heavyweight champ in 1954 when a 12-year-old Ali took up boxing after having his bicycle stolen. At night, the boy would listen to his transistor radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and hear Don Dunphy’s staticky voice from faraway Madison Square Garden, announcing Marciano as the heavyweight champ-eee-on of the world.

“The Super Fight” lobby card between Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) was shot in 1969 and released in 1970.

LMPC/Getty Images

In 1969, two years after Ali beat Terrell, the champ found himself in the ring with Marciano in one of the more bizarre fights in the annals of boxing. Ali was 27 years old and 29-0. Marciano was 45 years old and had retired 13 years earlier with a perfect 49-0 record, including 43 wins by knockout — history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ.

The “Super Fight,” as it was billed, was fake, the concoction of a Miami promoter and disc jockey, Murray Woroner. If computers could help put a man on the moon, why couldn’t they predict the outcome of a match between two unbeaten champions from different eras? Woroner fed the fighters’ statistics into a computer, which spit out a script of different fight scenarios that Ali and Marciano were paid to reenact in a film studio in North Miami. The resulting film was edited and shown in movie theaters across the country and overseas, the outcome kept a closely guarded secret, even to the fighters.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

Marciano had been a quiet conformist during his career, suppressing his anger toward a manager who stole from him and the Mafia that secretly controlled his career, along with most of professional boxing. He had served in the Army during World War II and became a symbol of American might during the Cold War, with a punch his manager compared to the atomic bomb.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

At the time, Ali was one of the most hated men in America, not the folk hero he would later become. During his pummeling of Terrell in 1967, he had screamed at him, “What’s my name?” because Terrell had called him by his former “slave name” of Cassius Clay, as did most sportswriters. He hadn’t fought in more than two years and was locked in a battle with the federal government after refusing to fight in Vietnam, famously declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

If this fight film was made possible by the new age of technology, promoters played up racial and ethnic stereotypes that had always characterized boxing to hype the gate. Newspapers frequently carried stories that Marciano was considering coming out of retirement, including one report shortly after Ali took the title that a wealthy Texan had offered Marciano $4 million ($34 million today) to silence the loudmouthed young champ.

Shortly before Ali and Marciano met in Miami that summer, a federal judge had ordered Ali to serve five years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He remained free on appeal, and in desperate need of funds. “I was in the deep freeze part of my exile, and there was no thaw in sight,” he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest.

Marciano, who had let himself go in retirement, had gone back into training, lost 50 pounds and donned a toupee to mask his receding hairline. At 5 feet, 10 inches, he was dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Ali, who was 20 pounds heavier. But Ali, who hadn’t fought in two years, looked flabbier. (I was able to recreate those sessions by interviewing two people who were there: Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother, and Ali’s then-wife Belinda, now Khalilah Ali. I also found, in the archives of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy memo from a Time reporter who had interviewed other eyewitnesses at the time of the film’s release.)

A ticket for “The Super Fight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the course of filming, the two champs sparred more than 70 one-minute rounds. They acknowledged that it was just playacting. They never clinched and seldom went for the head. But sometimes things got real. Ali would flick his lightning-quick jabs in Marciano’s face, prompting him to walk back to his corner muttering, “My God, the kid is so fast.” Ali delighted in flicking Marciano’s toupee off. An angry Marciano trapped Ali in a corner and pounded on his arms, then smashed a right to his solar plexus. “Ooof,” Ali exhaled, sinking to his stool. The taping stopped. Ali refused to continue until the promoter sent a driver to the bank to bring him another $2,000. One night they went out to dinner and ran into comedian Henny Youngman, who came over to their table and joked around. Ali’s arms were so sore that he had trouble lifting the saltshaker.

Staging knockdowns was tricky. Marciano had been knocked down only twice in his career, Ali not at all up to that point. Both had to be coaxed to take a dive for the cameras. During one take, Ali shouted, “Drop the Wop” and hit Marciano, who fell to the canvas, took out his mouthpiece and roared with laughter. When it was Marciano’s turn, he teased a reluctant Ali by parodying him: “The onliest way I can be beat by any man is to knock me out.”

During a break one day, the conversation turned to the country’s racial divide and the riots that had swept the country. They sat on the floor next to the ring, sharing a bag of grapefruit. Ali would tear off a section and pass it to Marciano.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do, me and you together, a white guy and a black guy?” said Marciano.

They talked about doing a bus tour of inner-city neighborhoods. Ali got excited.

“Imagine, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano, going into the worst areas,” he said. “We could shake up the world, you and me. Would you do it? Would you do it?”

Marciano said he would. He encouraged Ali to hang tough in his fight with the Army. Marciano had a secret about his own struggle with the Army that he never shared with Ali but which I unearthed from old Army records. His patriotic image as a soldier who served in World War II concealed the fact that he and another GI had been court-martialed for robbing and assaulting two British civilians shortly before D-Day. He never deployed to Normandy but instead served two years as a military prisoner.

Marciano had never been comfortable with authority, nor with the mantle of Great White Hope. He forged close relationships with black fighters, including his boyhood idol, Joe Louis. (He cried after knocking out Louis in Madison Square Garden to end Louis’ career and advance his own.) Marciano told Ali about his Italian-American family’s struggles after settling in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists and laborers, had been arrested on the Brockton trolley and executed in 1927, when Rocky was 3 years old, for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit. Politicians called Italians “a race of pickpockets” and “unfit foreigners.” Congress banned immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“People fear change,” Marciano told Ali.

The Ali-Marciano bus tour never happened. A few weeks after they parted, on Aug. 31, Marciano climbed into a Cessna in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, and a party at a steakhouse owned by the nephew of a mob pal. The plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Ali cried when he heard the news.

The following winter, The Super Fight aired in more than 600 theaters across America. Woroner had filmed seven different endings. In the first screening, a bloodied Marciano, trailing on points, knocked out Ali in the 13th round. Later, when the film was shown in Europe, Ali won. The fight looks phony. There are no spectators, just an eerie darkness surrounding the ring, with the sound of piped-in crowd noise. It’s as if the two men have been abducted by aliens and are fighting on a spaceship in outer space.

“He was the onliest one that would’ve given me some trouble,” Ali said shortly after attending Marciano’s wake. Later, Ali said that he felt closer to Marciano during their sparring sessions than he ever did to any other white fighter.

“Our work was phony,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But our friendship became real.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.