COLD WAR CIVIL RIGHTS: RACE AND THE IMAGE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY by Mary L.Dudziak. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 330 pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN 0-691-01661-5.
Reviewed by James C. Foster, Department of Political Science, Oregon State University.
Professor Mary Dudziak praises Derrick Bell in her Acknowledgements, saying that his "efforts to find new ways to reconceptualize questions of race in America provided inspiration, and his interest and support made me feel as if it mattered to do this work" (p. 311). I cite her a statement not to "rubricize" her (Abraham Maslow's pithy word), but to situate her important work. I believe that the phrase "Critical Race Theory"--another rubric--obscures more than it reveals. Yet, while blurring significant distinctions among this highly variegated scholarship, the Critical Race Theory label does highlight what Bell's and Dudziak's work shares in common with that of many scholars also similarly grouped: in scrutinizing the ways race, law, and politics intersect they emphasize context and contest. Like Bell, Dudziak reconceptualize questions of race. She frames them is a broader context, arguing that, "[a]n event that is local is at the same time international ... [i]n spite of the repression of the Cold War era, civil rights reform was IN PART a product of the Cold War ..." (pp. 17, 12). Also like Bell, she understands that law is contested terrain, "A continual struggle over the narrative of race in America meant that the terms of debate were always shifting" (p. 252). Thus, although her analytical framework is not strikingly original, her careful exploration of the particular relationship between the domestic politics of civil rights and Cold War international politics is a significant contribution.
Dudziak begins her study by retelling Jimmy Wilson's story, a "name [that] has not been remembered in the annals of Cold War history" (p .3), or elsewhere, for that matter. (Throughout her book, Dudziak recovers and recounts fascinating, often obscure, tales illustrating how civil rights struggles were enmeshed within Cold War politics.) In 1958, an all-white Alabama jury convicted Wilson of sexually assaulting and robbing $1.95 from Estelle Barker, his elderly employer. For the robbery, the trial judge sentenced Wilson to die in Alabama's electric chair. When the Alabama Supreme Court upheld Wilson's death sentence, his case became an international cause celebre. Coverage of the event was especially pronounced in West Africa. Petitioners and letter writers worldwide decried Wilson's treatment, protested his death sentence and, in one case, threatened the life of the U. S. Ambassador to the Netherlands if Wilson was executed. In another striking incident, a person in Perth, Australia, hung a symbolic black figure from the flagpole in front of the U. S. Consulate below a sign reading, "Guilty of theft of fourteen shillings." As negative global reaction mounted, U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles became involved. Dulles telegrammed Alabama Governor James Folsom,
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recounting the international reaction to Jimmy Wilson's plight. After initially assuming the stance of a defensive apologist ready "to aid in interpreting the facts of the case to the peoples of the world," Folsom yielded to mounting pressure and granted Wilson clemency "to end what he [Folsom] called the `international hullabaloo'" (p. 6). For Dudziak, the narrative of Jimmy Wilson's encounter with "Southern Justice" and how he was saved by an outcry that transcended American borders is emblematic of how Cold War international relations and the domestic politics of civil rights were closely intertwined between the end of World War Two and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Her analysis of this relationship covers six chapters. Chapter 1, "Coming to Terms with Cold War Civil Rights," sets the stage by recounting how, at the end of the 1940s, domestic racist violence and racial discrimination became increasingly problematical for the Truman Administration's Cold War diplomacy. Chapter 2, "Telling Stories about Race and Democracy," analyzes the federal government's twofold post-War efforts to respond to foreign criticism of American race relations, first, by reframing debates as a clash between a Soviet totalitarian state versus American democratic government and, second, by silencing eloquent dissident voices such as Paul Robeson. Chapter 3 is titled, "Fighting the Cold War with Civil Rights Reform." It is the pivotal chapter in Dudziak's book. In it she explains a shift in governmental strategy toward embracing social change--and trumpeting such change abroad--as a means of polishing the American image, mollifying friends, and frustrating The Soviet Menace. The remaining three chapters are concerned with successive American presidents' efforts to manage domestic race relations within a hostile, bi-polar world.
A reluctant President Dwight Eisenhower figures centrally in Chapter 4, "Holding the Line in Little Rock." The story of Eisenhower's belated involvement in the stand off over Supreme Court mandated desegregation of public schools in the face of massive resistance is well known. Once again, Duziak's contribution is to focus attention on the "mix of factors, domestic and international, that led to Eisenhower's extraordinary action in Little Rock" (p. 131). She quotes from Eisenhower's memoirs that, "around the world [the Little Rock crisis] could continue to feed the mill of Soviet propagandists who by word and picture were telling the world of the `racial terror' in the United States" (pp. 130-31). Initially in his administration, Civil Rights also were not a priority of President John F. Kennedy. Circumstances would not allow Kennedy to persist in his attitude of "reluctant engagement" (p. 155). Chapter 5, "Losing Control in Camelot," contains many familiar names from the fateful year of 1963: Eugene "Bull" Connor, George Wallace, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, Jr. It also contains the story of James Baldwin who "took the March on Washington to Paris" (p. 189). Eleven days prior to the March on Washington, Baldwin organized an August 17 civil rights meeting in the Living Room, a Paris nightclub. A second meeting followed the next day at the American Church. A "walk" from the American Church to the American Embassy took place on August 21. A petition supporting the March on Washington also resulted--a petition published in the international editions of the NEW YORK TIMES and the HERALD TRIBUNE, and distributed and signed by American citizens throughout Europe. Burt Lancaster read the Paris Petition before the two hundred
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thousand plus people assembled before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Solidarity marches took place in places as disparate as Amsterdam, Kingston, Jamaica, Munich, Burundi, and Cairo. Domestic politics and foreign policy intermingled, and "The international character of the movement and the role of foreign affairs in moving government policy might seem to take civil rights far from the strategy meetings of the SCLC, CORE, and SNCC, . [y]et it was the movement that generated this worldwide interest. And the world reciprocated, placing new power in the movement's hands" (p. 202). In Chapter 6, "Shifting the Focus of America's Image Abroad," Lyndon Baines Johnson takes center stage. Not surprisingly, Duziak's story in this chapter is, in fact, two stories. "If the United States seemed more legitimately to be the land of the free by the late 1960s, it was also the nation behind an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam" (p. 241). Despite passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act on his watch--domestic legislative victories converted into international propaganda triumphs by the USIA--President Johnson increasingly faced "broad-based worldwide criticism of American militarism" (p. 241).
Dudziak argues in her Conclusion that "attention to foreign relations helps us reconsider the role of the state in a domestic context. An international frame need not eclipse a focus on the grassroots. Instead it draws the grassroots and the government together in a new way. The struggles between them are acted out on a world stage, giving new leverage to the movement while restricting the state's options" (p. 253). As far as it goes, her reconceptualization of this crucial aspect of the question of race in America is a welcome contribution. However, does it go far enough? Does Dudziak's reconceptualization itself require rethinking?
Her work supposes a dilemma--The American Dilemma-that only partially exists. "The Negro Problem" which figured so centrally in the dialectic between American domestic and American foreign policy between 1947 and 1967, conventionally is interpreted to render the United States internally hypocritical and externally vulnerable. Of course, Gunnar Myrdal is the most influential student of this situation. "America," Dudziak quotes Myrdal as writing in his influential magnum opus, "for its international prestige, power, and future security, needs to demonstrate to the world that American Negroes can be satisfactorily integrated into its democracy" (p. 8). In other words, Myrdal argues and Dudziak presumes, America needs to live up to its own liberal democratic ideals. But, just how liberal democratic are American ideals? In a 1993 article that merits revisiting, Rogers M. Smith contends that ascriptive, hierarchical themes in American political culture play at least as significant a role in our history as American egalitarianism. According to Smith, American ideals are much more nuanced and complex than Myrdal (or Tocqueville or Hartz, for that matter) present them. On his reading, the gap between American ideals and American social realities vanishes: "[A]ccusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy are significant concessions to the prevalence of inegalitarian traditions; but they still presume that Americans' more liberal and democratic beliefs are their `real' ones" (Smith 1993: 557). A less "narrow" (Smith 1993: 549) reading of the American political tradition would understand that Cold War civil rights are less a realization of noble American ideals than "product[s] of often conflicting multiple traditions" (Smith 1993: 563).
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Smith, Rogers M. 1993. "Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America," AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 87: 549-566.
Copyright 2001 by the author, James C. Foster.