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Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy

Mary L. Dudziak
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 344
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7swtk
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  • Book Info
    Cold War Civil Rights
    Book Description:

    In 1958, an African-American handyman named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to die in Alabama for stealing two dollars. Shocking as this sentence was, it was overturned only after intense international attention and the interference of an embarrassed John Foster Dulles. Soon after the United States' segregated military defeated a racist regime in World War II, American racism was a major concern of U.S. allies, a chief Soviet propaganda theme, and an obstacle to American Cold War goals throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each lynching harmed foreign relations, and "the Negro problem" became a central issue in every administration from Truman to Johnson.

    In what may be the best analysis of how international relations affected any domestic issue, Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image. But improving the nation's reputation did not always require real change. This focus on image rather than substance--combined with constraints on McCarthy-era political activism and the triumph of law-and-order rhetoric--limited the nature and extent of progress.

    Archival information, much of it newly available, supports Dudziak's argument that civil rights was Cold War policy. But the story is also one of people: an African-American veteran of World War II lynched in Georgia; an attorney general flooded by civil rights petitions from abroad; the teenagers who desegregated Little Rock's Central High; African diplomats denied restaurant service; black artists living in Europe and supporting the civil rights movement from overseas; conservative politicians viewing desegregation as a communist plot; and civil rights leaders who saw their struggle eclipsed by Vietnam.

    Never before has any scholar so directly connected civil rights and the Cold War. Contributing mightily to our understanding of both, Dudziak advances--in clear and lively prose--a new wave of scholarship that corrects isolationist tendencies in American history by applying an international perspective to domestic affairs.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3107-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-17)

    Jimmy Wilson’s name has not been remembered in the annals of Cold War history, but in 1958, this African American handyman was at the center of international attention. After he was sentenced to death in Alabama for stealing less than two dollars in change, Wilson’s case was thought to epitomize the harsh consequences of American racism. It brought to the surface international anxiety about the state of American race relations. Because the United States was the presumptive leader of the free world, racism in the nation was a matter of international concern. How could American democracy be a beacon during...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Coming to Terms with Cold War Civil Rights
    (pp. 18-46)

    One shot could have killed George Dorsey, but when he and three companions were found along the banks of the Appalachee River in Georgia on July 25, 1946, their bodies were riddled with at least sixty bullets. Many white men with guns had participated in this deed. Yet the ritual that produced the deaths of two “young Negro farmhands and their wives” required more than mere killing. The privilege of taking part in the executions, the privilege of drawing blood in the name of white supremacy, was to be shared.²

    George Dorsey had recently returned to Georgia after five years...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Telling Stories about Race and Democracy
    (pp. 47-78)

    In 1947, Public Affairs Officer Frederick C. Jochem wrote an article for a Rangoon, Burma, newspaper, with the approval of the U.S. consul general in Rangoon. The article, entitled “Negro Problem,” politely suggested that the Burmese did not have all the facts on the issue of race in the United States It began:

    A Burmese friend was astonished the other day when I told him that a Negro had just been appointed to a professorship in my university back home. We were discussing the “Negro problem” in America, and it turned out that a number of facts and viewpoints that...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Fighting the Cold War with Civil Rights Reform
    (pp. 79-114)

    American embassies scattered throughout the world tried to do their part to salvage the tarnished image of American democracy. They used the tools available to them: speakers and news stories that would cast American difficulties in the best light possible. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Truman administration could take more affirmative, less reactive steps. President Truman and his aides sought change in the domestic policies and practices that fueled international outrage.

    In 1947, Truman’s President’s Committee on Civil Rights issued a report that highlighted the foreign affairs consequences of race discrimination. The committee’s report, To Secure These Rights, argued that there...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Holding the Line in Little Rock
    (pp. 115-151)

    The school year would not begin easily in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. On September 4 of that year, nine African American students tried to enroll at Little Rock’s Central High School. Their admission had been ordered by a federal district court. However, just two days earlier, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus declared that the students’ enrollment threatened “imminent danger of tumult, riot and breach of the peace and the doing of violence to persons and property.” He proclaimed a state of emergency and ordered the Arkansas National Guard into service. These troops surrounded Central High School on September 4 and...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Losing Control in Camelot
    (pp. 152-202)

    On June 26, 1961, Malick Sow of the African nation of Chad was on his way to Washington. The first ambassador to the United States from this newly independent nation, Ambassador Sow planned to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy. The ambassador’s drive from New York, the site of the United Nations, to Washington, D.C., took him along Route 40 through Maryland. Sow stopped along the highway for gas. Hoping to ease a headache, he also stopped in at a diner for a cup of coffee. What happened in the diner would not make Sow feel better but...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Shifting the Focus of America’s Image Abroad
    (pp. 203-248)

    As the world grieved for the fallen president, Lyndon Johnson stepped forward to comfort and to heal. Tragedy had enabled him to replace his former rival. This tragedy also shaped the contours of his leadership in the early months of his presidency. Johnson could not cast off the memory of Kennedy, or its hold on the world’s emotions. Instead, he embraced it, elevated it, and shaped it. In so doing, he presented himself as the vessel of another’s good intentions.

    On November 27, two days after John F. Kennedy had been laid to rest, Lyndon Johnson stood before a joint...

  11. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 249-254)

    On April 9, 1968, as a mule-drawn wagon carried the coffin of Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, flags flew at half staff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The coffin was made of African mahogany. At the front of the funeral procession, marchers carried three flags—of the United States, King’s church, and the United Nations. The tens of thousands gathered to pay their respects to King included foreign leaders. It was as if it were the funeral for a head of state. The world had embraced King as an icon of American civil rights progress. His...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 255-310)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 311-316)
  14. Index
    (pp. 317-330)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 331-331)