The Effect of The Civil Rights Movement on United States Foreign Policy

On the 17th of May 1954, the United States Supreme Court concluded a landmark case that would bring to the fore a national movement which would last for nearly 15 years. The case, known as ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ ruled for desegregation in schools nationwide, calling on the 14th Amendment in espousing “separate but equal”. Yet, we must question how it is that this specifically national movement had such great international consequence, defining the way the United States (US) conducted itself on the world stage. I argue that the civil rights movement affected US policy towards the newly independent nations within Africa and Asia, and towards the rest of the world positively, in the context of cold war propaganda. I also point to the idea of an internationalist policy resulting from World War 2 which created an internationalist environment for change. However, overall, I identify that it was the nationalist civil rights movement and subsequent backlash which was the greater driver of US foreign policy in this period.

The internationalist approach to civil rights was influential within the movement itself, within public perception, and on domestic policy, but was not as influential on US foreign policy as the nationalist approach. Martin Luther King placed the civil rights movement squarely in a global context. In texts such as ‘The Ethical Demands for Integration’ it becomes clear that King’s philosophy centred around the concept of a peaceful international understanding that all humans have intrinsic worth, and that changing policy will have negligible effect if you cannot change ‘hearts and minds’. King linked this internationalism with American patriotism when he alluded to Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg’ Speech in his ‘I have a dream’ speech of 1963.

Indeed, King was ultimately successful in changing those hearts and minds, as his peaceful protest endeared the freedom struggle to the American public. However, leaders such as King, Robert Moses, and Marcus Garvey were not influential in changing US foreign policy, although you can say they were instrumental in assisting it. In the context of the cold war, where the US and the Soviet Union (USSR) were vying for world influence, both countries wanted to be seen as internationalist. Therefore, the internationalists in the civil rights movement were useful in promoting the US image, especially in newly independent nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), and in existing nations such as Ethiopia, which were receptive to the idea of a pan-African movement. However, the promotion of figures such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ by the United States Information Agency (USIA), is exemplary of both the country’s desire to be perceived as internationalist and the superficial way it conducted foreign policy to achieve that goal. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 has since revealed to historians the validity of claims that the US was not practising its preaching’s in terms of global freedoms. The internationalist civil rights activists were helping the US government maintain a veneer of an internationalist foreign policy without having to implement much change.

Conversely the nationalist civil rights activists did cause meaningful change in US foreign policy. The reason for this was that, in this movement, the nationalists were a more militant group than the internationalists. Whereas King sought inspiration from those such as Gandhi and the Indian civil rights movement, figures like Malcolm X drew guidance from more violent protests. Malcolm X, as laid out in his 1963 speech ‘Message to the Grassroots’, believed that if change was needed, they would have to take it, using the French (1789), Russian (1917), and American (1776) revolutions as examples. Despite these international influences Malcolm X and others like Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panther Party (BPP) still led a nationalist approach, not seeking cooperation with those other countries, but attempting to mimic them in ethnocentricity. This was intensified by their movement being conflated with communism. Because Soviet propaganda focussed on America not having complete civil rights, some Americans’ response was to say that civil rights were anti-American. Thus, with accusations of being unpatriotic, and their militancy associating themselves with revolution, the militant nationalists had to ensure that they were seen to be patriots. Physical acts of rebellion, such as the 1964 Harlem riots or the 1965 Watts riots, were so influential on US foreign policy because they produced images which would be spun around the world and affect global opinion, all eyes were watching a country in turmoil. Thomas Jackson has shown particularly that the Kennedy administration was very concerned with this image, trying to get protestors “into the courts and out of the streets”. Indeed, it was the case privately, despite the public message, that the administration thought the whole affair “bad for the country”.

Michael Klarman has discussed the notion that in fact it was not even the nationalist civil rights movement that had the greatest impact on US foreign policy, but was instead the nationalist backlash towards it. This is because this backlash was tied into several other issues including abortion, the death penalty, and same-sex marriages. This gave the impression of more than just rebellion, it was beginning to look like a repeat of the civil war. It was the “everyday racism of any white person”, as Thomas Borstelmann explains, which was the most problematic. Borstelmann explores the legacy of the Jim Crow laws that hung over American life and were called its “Achilles’ heel before the world” by senator Henry Lodge. He highlights also how America’s opposition to European colonisation, justified partially on racial grounds, forced its hand in adopting a more interventionist foreign policy. Feeling it must now enforce that vision of post-war anti-colonialism around the world, America then intervened in areas of proxy war, such as Vietnam, Iran, South Africa, and Guatemala. Additionally, America’s words of equality stated during World War 2 rendered any endorsement, nationally or internationally, of discrimination, contradictory, as Mary L. Dudziak explains in her preeminent work in this field. She also talks, along with Brenda Gayle Plummer in her text, about the key role of the media in foreign policy. Dudziak particularly notes the role of the foreign media, in that civil rights activists may have “manipulated” such sources, knowing the US government would be reading, to be particularly critical of discriminatory practice.

It is interesting to observe that in many ways the nationalist and internationalist branches of the civil rights movement had the opposite effects on US foreign policy than what they intended. The internationalists were the ones who achieved domestic change by winning over the American public, whereas, the nationalists, by tarnishing the American image, incited a foreign policy that promoted an internationalist agenda.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 09th of September 2017

Last Modified: 09th of September 2017

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