African Americans and the Long Cold War Thaw, 1954-1965

Most liberals think of Mississippi as a cancer, as a distortion of America. But we think Mississippi is an accurate reflection of America’s values and morality. Why can’t the people who killed Andrew, James, and Mickie be brought to justice, unless a majority of the community condones murder? Sheriff Rainey is not a freak; he reflects the majority. And what he did is related to the napalm bombing of “objects” in Vietnam.

—Robert Moses, 1965

The Geneva Accords of 1954 signified the end of France’s colonial empire in the Far East. Among other things, it temporarily divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel and called for free elections by 1956. Wishing to distance themselves from the taint of compromise with the communist forces, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to sign the accords; they perceived the French withdrawal as a fresh opportunity to create an independent capitalist bastion in South Vietnam, free of the stench of colonialism. The Eisenhower administration breathed a sigh of relief when the election that would have unified Vietnam never occurred—an election that Ho Chi Minh would have won. Starting in 1956, U.S. assistance to South Vietnam’s government, led by avowed Catholic and anticommunist Ngo Dinh Diem, totaled more than $300 million annually, most of which went to buy military goods. Eisenhower’s decision to invest millions of dollars to create an anticommunist buffer in South Vietnam was rooted in his adherence to the domino theory, and it would contribute to the massive military involvement a decade later.1

Like most Americans, civil rights leaders did not consider events in faraway Vietnam a pressing matter. During the second week of the conference at Geneva, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision, which seemingly validated the NAACP’s strategy of litigation and its partnership with Cold War liberalism. Brown was also predictive of a diminution in anticommunist hysteria, opening up a small crevice for dissent by African Americans and other opponents of America’s hawkish foreign policy. Meanwhile, cracks in the pall of American conformity began to surface in the period following Brown and the Geneva Accords. With the end of the Korean War, the passing of McCarthyism, and the relaxation of Cold War tensions following Stalin’s death (which lessened the likelihood of nuclear confrontation), forums for expressing dissent against the prevailing Zeitgeist occurred with greater frequency.2 As early as 1955, Paul Robeson (still without his passport) observed this new spirit when he addressed students at Swarthmore College, which had maintained its commitment to peace and disarmament during the height of the Red scare. Robeson said he was buoyed by the “stirring of new life among the students” and relieved that “the Ivy Curtain of conformity, which for a decade has shut them off from the sunlight of independent thinking, is beginning to wilt.”3

Robeson was also heartened by attempts to reconstitute the pacifist movement around the issues of world peace and nuclear disarmament, another sign of a thaw in the Cold War. In 1956 David Dellinger, a longtime pacifist and World War II conscientious objector, founded a radical bimonthly newspaper called Liberation, which signaled a new moment in American political and cultural dissent.4 In addition to Dellinger, Liberation's editorial board comprised prominent individuals who would play crucial roles in the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s, including Staughton Lynd, Howard Zinn, Bayard Rustin, Lorraine Hans- berry, James Baldwin, and Robert Williams. Liberation published one of the first articles touting the leadership skills of a young minister in Alabama named Martin Luther King Jr., who was gaining notoriety for leading the Montgomery bus boycott.5

Only a few years later, Albert Bigelow, a World War II veteran turned civil rights activist and Quaker pacifist, generated publicity when he was arrested for attempting to sail his thirty-two-foot boat, the Golden Rule, into the U.S. bomb-test site at Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific.6 Although the peace movement remained largely on the periphery, the abatement of the Red scare and the government’s lessened interest in prosecuting and harassing suspected communists provided small openings for opposition to the Cold War. these small forums enabled a few African American leftists to reestablish the connections between the peace and freedom movements. It would be an arduous and fitful process, but by the time the Vietnam War erupted, many on the left, including African Americans, would identify with Ho Chi Minh’s struggle for independence from white imperialism, and they would not be silent.

As the country crept out of the haze of McCarthyism, Bayard Rustin played a critical role in reviving the moribund pacifist movement and mentoring young Martin Luther King Jr., thereby revitalizing the civil rights movement’s connection with pacifism. A conscientious objector during World War II, Rustin was one of the most prominent and controversial African American crusaders for peace and civil rights from the 1930s until his death in 1987.7 He briefly joined the Young Communist League in the 1930s and was arrested for homosexual behavior during the height of McCarthyism, when homosexuality was viewed as a facilitator of communist subversion. As a result, Rustin would be stigmatized throughout his life and forced to operate from the shadows. In 1956 Rustin not only helped create Liberation but also traveled to Montgomery to give twenty-seven-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. a tutorial on Gandhian nonviolence. At the same time, Rustin headed the War Resisters League (WRL), and he was the linchpin between the pacifist movement and the civil rights movement. The Cold War and the Red scare had debilitated the pacifist movement and fractured the alliance between peace groups and civil rights organizations. Membership of the WRL, for example, plummeted during the Red scare.8 Nonetheless, the resurgence of the WRL, along with the formation of two anticommunist peace organizations in 1957—Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) and Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE)—helped spur a peace movement renaissance based on the nuclear threat.9 Although the connections between radical pacifists and the civil rights movement were tenuous prior to the 1960s, veteran war resister Dellinger exhorted white pacifists to devote some of their passion to civil rights activism.10

The slackening of anticommunist hysteria coincided with propitious developments in the civil rights movement. By the mid-1950s, African American impatience with segregation quickened. The brutal lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 provoked international and national outrage and sparked a renewed urgency for racial justice. Gruesome photographs of Till’s deformed face accompanied news reports of the crime, and they had a visceral impact on a generation of future civil rights leaders who would become shock troops of the movement. Years later, congressman and SNCC leader John Lewis recounted his reaction to the Till murder: “As for me, I was shaken to the core by the killing of Emmett Till. I was fifteen, black, at the edge of my own manhood just like him. He could have been me. That could have been me, beaten, tortured, dead at the bottom of a river.”11

a few months later, the Montgomery bus boycott introduced the concept of “nonviolent direct action,” which transformed the nature of the civil rights struggle. Montgomery also brought to the fore martin Luther King Jr., who reignited the freedom struggle and described the battle against segregation as part of a global struggle to end colonialism and imperi- alism.12 Whereas the NAACP’s strategy of focusing on litigation, legislation, and lobbying had reaped Brown v. Board of Education and other victories, it did not resonate with ordinary African Americans. King, however, articulated the yearnings of the common people whose lives revolved around church, community, and family. As a minister of the Gospel based in the South, King also embodied a certain palatability that made him less threatening to the American public as a whole. Anne Braden, a progressive white activist who, along with her husband Carl Braden, waged a lonely and dangerous battle against segregation in the South in the late 1940s and 1950s, recalled that the prevailing aura of fear began to dissipate by 1957, when “there was beginning to be a much more organized fight-back against the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s.” Braden credited the black freedom struggle in the South with breaking through the “silence of the fifties and the whole McCarthy period,” which led to a “feeling of real motion in the South.13 In spite of these auspicious developments, segregationists still deftly branded the struggle for civil rights in the South as a communist-inspired movement, and a harsh period of repression stymied civil rights activists in the late 1950s.14 Historian Thomas F. Jackson characterized the three years following the Montgomery bus boycott as “fallow” for King’s newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and for the civil rights movement in the South.15

The rise of King and the success of the Montgomery bus boycott overshadowed African Americans’ interest in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, events abroad also resulted in slight fissures in the Cold War monolith. In the aftermath of the French defeat in Vietnam, the United States created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and attempted to incorporate all nations in the region under its military umbrella, thereby blocking further communist gains. India, Burma, Ceylon, Pakistan, and Indone?sia opposed inclusion in this Western ambit and vowed to be neutral. In December 1954 these five nations called for a conference of twenty-four other nonaligned African and Asian states to convene in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955.16 The Bandung Conference signaled the desire of these nonaligned nations to advance their “common and mutual interests” as they grappled with their own issues of racism, decolonization, and diplomacy in a nuclear world.17 Not surprisingly, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a hawkish cold warrior who had vowed to construct South Vietnam as a capitalist bulwark, was wary of the prospect of an independent bloc comprising more than half the world’s population existing outside the authority of the West, especially after the five nations invited China to attend the conference.18 Conversely, even though W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were still without their passports and unable to attend, African American anticolonialists had a more sanguine view of Bandung. According to historian Penny Von Eschen, Bandung generated excitement among African American intellectuals and opened up new vistas for discourse on foreign affairs “after the most repressive years of the Cold War.”19 Organizers of the conference invited African American expatriate Richard Wright, who was exultant about the possibility of a new international alliance and hailed Bandung as “the last call of Westernized Asians to the moral conscience of the West.”20 Bandung’s recognition of people of color as autonomous political actors infused African American intellectuals with a sense of pride and gave them a glimpse of the future in a postcolonial world. It also reignited interest in colonial issues beyond Cold War typologies. While Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a visitor at the Bandung Conference, shocked attendees with his declaration that “racism in the United States is on the way out” and that Washington, D.C., had become “a place of complete racial equality,” the black press lauded the entrance of perennially subjugated colored people onto the world stage.21 The African American reaction to Bandung demonstrated excitement over potential new platforms to discuss the international dimensions of racism in an age of decolonization.

In an era when it was still perilous to criticize American foreign policy, African American journalist William Worthy was notable for publishing a slew of articles in the 1950s for the Baltimore Afro-American and Crisis that questioned American imperial designs in Asia and Africa. Later, Worthy would be a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro. Like Rustin, Worthy had been a conscientious objector during World War II and wrote contemptuously about the Korean War, which he derided as racist. He was equally critical of the NAACP and Walter White for encouraging blacks to fight in Korea, accusing them of complicity in the European colonial powers’ subjugation of colored peoples in Asia.22 only weeks before the French surrendered to the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu, Worthy branded the war in Vietnam a racist “dirty war” and called it “a potential colonial prelude to a World War III of color.”23 For the most part, Worthy’s jeremiads on the racial implications of U.S. foreign policy in Africa and Asia fell on deaf ears. While Robeson and a smattering of African American intellectuals and activists lamented the United States’ support of repressive regimes that opposed national liberation movements in what was now being called the Third World, most African Americans were oblivious to the potential perils in distant Southeast Asia. Indeed, Eisenhower’s decision not to get bogged down in a land war in Asia relegated Vietnam to a tertiary concern until the early 1960s.

Worthy was the most influential black foreign correspondent of the 1950s. He traveled to Malaysia, Algeria, the Belgian Congo, and South Africa, where he lambasted apartheid. In 1955 he went to the Soviet Union, where he became the first American journalist since 1948 to broadcast a live interview with Nikita Khrushchev.24 Worthy’s 1956 trip to China, where he interviewed Premier Cho En-lai, defied a travel ban and caused the U.S. government to revoke his passport. The State Department’s harsh treatment of Worthy illustrates that black internationalism’s radical bent remained largely a peripheral consideration until the early 1960s.25 Worthy and a few other African American journalists, such as Eugene Gordon, had trouble finding an interested readership for their stories criticizing American Cold War policy.26 It would take the nation’s plunge into Vietnam to rivet blacks’ attention to foreign policy. Meanwhile, Worthy’s views foreshadowed the African American Third Worldism that would erupt a decade later.

On June 16, 1958, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kent v. Dulles invalidated passport revocation as a means of punishing citizens for their political affiliations.27 This landmark decision, along with the government’s greater concern about the ramifications of segregation on international public opinion, engendered some hope of uniting the fragments of African American anti colonialism. Although direct assaults against U.S. foreign policy were still dangerous, this changed atmosphere gave blacks the ability to shape the narrative of decolonization if it furthered American interests in influencing the Third World. African Americans’ celebration of Ghana’s independence on March 5, 1957, is a case in point. Ghana, under the leadership of Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, became the first sub-Saharan country to achieve formal independence from colonial rule. this feat aroused such interest among African Americans that Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Lester granger of the NUL, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and White House aide E. Frederic Morrow traveled all the way to West Africa to attend the celebration.28 African American journalists also made the pilgrimage to Ghana, but their coverage was colored by Cold War realities, causing them to gloss over Britain’s long history of oppression and colonialism.29 For instance, the Chicago Defender editorialized independence as a “glorious day for Africa,” but it also lauded England for adding a “new chapter to the history of modern civilization” and for “removing the yoke of colonialism from the necks of the oppressed natives of West Africa.”30 Vice President Richard Nixon also attended the ceremonies as part of a three-week goodwill tour of Africa, and he hoped to steer the newly independent sub-Saharan state in a proWestern and capitalist direction.31 In subsequent years, Ghana would be a destination for African American radical expatriates like Du Bois, who could not attend the ceremonies in 1957 (he still had no passport) but would spend his final years there. Other notable African American writers such as Du Bois’s wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, Julian Mayfield, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X would either work in Ghana or spend significant time there.

Nkrumah was the first head of state whom King met, and King’s experiences in Ghana reinforced his belief that Western imperialism and racism had an international structure based on racial and economic oppression. However, he hewed to Cold War niceties and tread a delicate line between publicly expressing his views about the importance of Ghanaian independence for African Americans and the world and attempting to inoculate the civil rights movement from any taint of communist influence.32 King’s balancing act on Ghana portended the muting of his antipathy to the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and reflected the Red scare’s lingering impact on African Americans’ willingness to express their opinions on Cold War policy. In a few years, King’s caution would be tested by a group of young activists who were more willing to question Cold War verities. More than anything else, the birth of SNCC emboldened and reoriented the civil rights movement, giving it an anti-imperialist and pacifist sensibility and prompting King to speak out more forcefully on the connections between racial justice and world peace.

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