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Law Scholar Links Civil Rights to Cold War Embarrassment

Legal scholar Mary Dudziak stands next to the memorial to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which is located in front of the USC Law School. An introductory quote by King in Dudziak’s new book reads, “Abused and scorned though we may be as a people, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America.” According to Dudziak, “Civil rights leaders gained an advantage as the United States sought to improve its international image.”

Photo by Irene Fertik

When law professor Mary Dudziak began her research into school desegregation in the 1950s, her plan was simply to write an academic paper on the topic.

But something unexpected happened along the way.

Dudziak found an even bigger story – a story many scholars believe could change the way Americans view the Cold War and the civil rights movement.

Her newly released book, “Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy” (Princeton University Press, 2000) examines how the fight against communism forced American leaders – embarrassed on the world stage by oppression at home – to support desegregation. Her work begins with post-World War II race discrimination and extends through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“When I started my research, the question I kept coming back to was “How is Brown v. Board of Education a McCarthy-era case?” Dudziak said. “Even though Brown was decided in 1954 during the McCarthy era, most people think of the Cold War and civil rights as unrelated. But they are linked quite strongly.

“Segregation made us look bad and cast doubt on American democracy among leaders in African, Latin American and Asian nations,” Dudziak said. “American presidents and diplomats feared that other nations would be slow to embrace democracy if they saw Americans denying basic rights to their own citizens.”

After a segregated U.S. military defeated a racist regime during World War II, bigotry in America quickly became a concern among our allies, Dudziak said. “It also became a chief source for Soviet propaganda, which was difficult to refute. It was an important issue in every presidential administration from Truman to Johnson.”

The connection between civil rights and the Cold War was especially evident during President Kennedy’s administration, Dudziak said. “Initially he backburnered civil rights because he didn’t want it to interfere with his foreign policy and economic initiatives. But he eventually had no choice because it did interfere.”

One case, in particular, caused an international flap. An ambassador from Chad was driving on Highway 40 from New York to Washington, D.C., to meet with Kennedy. Along the way, the ambassador stopped for coffee at a diner in Maryland. He was promptly thrown out: The establishment was “whites only.”

The State Department Office of Special Protocol set up a division solely to deal with discrimination against black diplomats. They soon realized, however, that abolishing discrimination for all blacks was the only answer. This was one of the reasons that Secretary of State Dean Rusk lobbied for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dudziak said.

“Foreign affairs is not the only reason for civil rights reform during the 1950s and ’60s, but it’s one of the reasons that Congress got so interested in social change,” she added.

Dudziak also claims that the brutalization of civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 marked a crisis moment in foreign affairs. “Birmingham was all over the world press. What was this telling the world about our democracy as a model to follow? The civil rights movement gained an advantage as the United States sought to improve its international image,” Dudziak said.

Dudziak spent months criss-crossing the country, visiting libraries and poring over recently released archival information to explore the link between civil rights and the Cold War. Scholars, who have lauded Dudziak’s book as the first to document an important historical connection, describe it as “meticulously researched and beautifully written.” The author hopes to reach readers beyond academia.

“We are faced with new international scrutiny of American culture and politics in our own day,” Dudziak said. “Perhaps we can learn from this earlier episode when international criticism helped motivate important re forms at home.”

Law Scholar Links Civil Rights to Cold War Embarrassment

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