was the Civil Rights Movement successful because of the Cold War?

It’s widely argued that the federal government made concessions on civil rights between 1945 and 1970 because blatant racial oppression was embarrassing during the global struggle against communism. Doug McAdam illustrates this argument by noting the “stark contrast” between FDR and Truman on issues of racial justice. FDR was an extraordinarily powerful president who tended toward liberal personal attitudes on race and drew overwhelming support from Black voters in the North, yet he did virtually nothing for civil rights–not even endorsing anti-lynching bills that were pending in Congress. Truman held more ambiguous views and faced political peril, yet he took substantial steps to desegregate the military and civil service. McAdam, following other authors, attributes the difference to the onset of the Cold War.

This explanation has two slightly dispiriting implications (not for McAdam, but for other observers). One is that White American leaders didn’t respond to moral arguments, principles, or empathy; they simply wanted to win a geopolitical struggle. The other is that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded thanks to a fortunate circumstance, not due to its own courage and excellence.

What those inferences overlook is the skillful and principled ways that the Movement took advantage of openings to shift Whites’ hearts and minds.

First, Movement leaders intentionally provoked responses that would look ugly on national TV. After the setback experienced in Albany, GA, where local authorities behaved civilly but refused to budge, the Movement rushed to Birmingham, AL to confront Bull Connor during his lame-duck period because they knew he could be counted on to respond with brutality. The Cold War made the US vulnerable, and the movement took full advantage.

Second, the protesters wrapped themselves in the flag, the constitution, and other symbols of American patriotism. I am sure this was sincere–I read thinkers like King and Rustin as genuine patriots. But it was also smart.

As McAdam concludes: “the extraordinary string of civil rights victories achieved in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond) has to be accounted as owing at least as much to the creativity and courage of movement forces as to favourable environmental circumstances.” Stephen Jones argues that successful social movements almost always need both “luck and pluck.”

The skill and success of the Civil Rights Movement then echoed in unexpected ways. In Communist states such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, television footage of brutal American racism was widely aired to discredit the US. These regimes also broadcast antinuclear protests from Western Europe. At least some viewers identified themselves with the protesters–and the communist state with the oppressors. They learned that nonviolent social movements could succeed against powerful governments like their own.

Aldon D. Morris writes, “in the early days of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Bayard Rustin, a major tactician of the civil rights movement, was summoned to Poland to give a series of colloquia and speeches on how nonviolent direct action worked in the civil rights movement.” Later, the Tiananmen protesters in China learned “that King’s methods of non-violence and civil disobedience had helped the blacks win civil rights in the United States. They were also impressed by King’s interactions with American presidents in that effort, which offered them a model to follow when they requested a meeting with China’s leaders.”

A movement for universal human rights embarrassed a government ostensibly committed to those values. Foreign dictatorships then tried to exploit this embarrassment, only to inspire similar movements against themselves. This is a story of some luck and lots of pluck.

Sources: Doug McAdam, “The US Civil Rights Movement: Power from Below and Above, 1945-70,” Merle Goldman, “The 1989 Demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and Beyond: Echoes of Gandhi,” and Stephen Jones, “Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003: A Forceful Peace,” all in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Aldon Morris, “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks,” Annual Review of Sociology vol. 25, no 1 (Nov. 2003), pp. 517-539.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.