Cold War Civil Rights
The exigencies of the Red scare caused the civil rights establishment to abandon its previous concern for anticolonialism and peace. The presence of communists in peace organizations created major problems for the pacifist movement and silenced African American demands for both peace and racial justice.159 Moreover, attacks on economic inequities were muted because they were redolent of Marxist critiques of capitalism.
At the same time, the Cold War created opportunities for the civil rights movement to dismantle segregation. It enabled activists to leverage their rhetoric to demonstrate that U.S. racial policies undermined the country’s international standing and its ongoing propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union. In the late 1940s, the NAACP’s legal staff had waged a frontal assault on the white primary, restrictive racial covenants, and segregation in graduate schools, which brought them within striking distance of overturning the ignominious “separate but equal” precedent.160 This was a protracted campaign that culminated on May 17, 1954, with the Supreme
Court’s issuance of its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared Jim Crow unconstitutional. The Justice Department had filed an amicus brief emphasizing the international embarrassment of segregation in the nation’s capital.161 Brown underscored the benefits of the civil rights movement’s alliance with Cold War liberalism, and it foreshadowed the triumphs achieved with the help of the liberal political establishment in the mid-1960s. These civil rights successes were partially reinforced by Cold War incentives to support military conflicts abroad. In choosing sides in the debate over Vietnam, the civil rights movement would take into consideration the benefits of its marriage to Cold War liberalism, and mainstream groups would be reluctant to challenge U.S. policies.
In spite of Brown, the link between the civil rights movement and Cold War liberalism had its limitations until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights and race rarely concerned prominent white intellectuals and politicians outside of the South.162 The NAACP and much of the African American establishment cast their lot with liberalism, but the Democratic Party was still beholden to its segregationist wing and therefore failed to make African American equality a paramount objective.163 Brown may have buoyed the spirits of racial activists, but it signified only piecemeal progress. Although it outlawed segregation in schools, Brown's ameliorative impact was shrouded in ambiguous language that precipitated years of additional litigation. It also unleashed a reign of renewed terror and obstinacy in the South that placed the movement on the defensive. On the whole, the civil rights movement of the 1950s belied a certain cautiousness that was informed by the repressive domestic political climate. It would take a new generation of young African American activists to break through the frigid Cold War climate and renew the sense of urgency for racial justice.
Until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, the executive branch displayed a lamentable timidity on civil rights. Other than his precatory order about desegregating the military, Truman’s sympathetic rhetoric, though symbolic, did not translate into decisive action against Jim Crow. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was even worse. When Arkansas governor Orval Faubus encouraged riots to prevent the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops only after the international press pilloried the United States.164 Ike’s mantra was “gradualism,” and he famously called his own decision to appoint Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court “the biggest damnfool mistake” he ever made.165 His tributes to the martial virtues of the South were legendary, epitomizing his comfort with the southern racial caste and his moral indifference to segregation.166 The presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, and even that of John F. Kennedy, were informed by their obsession with the Cold War and their fear of the Soviet enemy. If the issue of civil rights caught their interest, it was usually based on a desire to avert international embarrassment. They frequently derided civil rights leaders and segregationists as equal opportunity extremists.
Until the mid-1960s, African Americans’ success occurred outside the realm of politics. But shortly after Brown, twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. emerged and rose to prominence as the leader of the successful Montgomery bus boycott. This event was of major importance because it ushered in a new chapter of nonviolent protest that differed from the NAACP’s near-exclusive focus on litigation, lobbying, and legislation and helped puncture the complacency of the 1950s civic culture. But it would not be until the early 1960s, under the leadership of a new generation removed from the fratricidal wars of the Old Left, that the civil rights movement accelerated the pace of change. SNCC embodied this resurgent spirit, and many of its members took their inspiration from Robeson, Du Bois, and other figures from that era. The destruction of their anticolonial predecessors, however, forced this new generation—loosely dubbed the “New Left”—to take up the fight in a vacuum.167 Their successes in the domestic sphere and their renewed claims of the international nature of the race problem occurred against the backdrop of the United States’ growing engagement in distant Vietnam. In a new era characterized by the waning of the Red scare and McCarthyism, SNCC’s new spirit foreshadowed its early opposition to the Vietnam War, which would eventually tear the civil rights coalition asunder. In the early 1960s, the attempt to reunite the struggles for civil rights and for peace would begin anew. But the vitality of the Cold War Zeitgeist and the lingering impact of McCarthyism would make this a fitful and arduous endeavor.