President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former president and first lady George and Laura Bush take part in the 50th anniversary of the Selma Marches
“The Negro is a better American than most when he insists on the realization of the ideals set forth in the Constitution. Because the Negro American believes in [the] principles and ideals which make up the American creed, he would certainly fight to protect the country and its ideals. He has always done so, and I believe he always will. But it is the responsibility of the Negro American . . . and of every American citizen, regardless of color or creed . . . to insist relentlessly on the privilege of enjoying his birthright, which is equality of treatment and opportunity.” – Ralph Bunche
Ralph J. Bunche was what many would call an “extraordinary negro” back in his day. Bunche was the class valedictorian of his high school in 1922 and earned the same honor when he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1927. He proceeded to earn his Master’s and Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard’s Department of Government, making him the first Black American in the country to hold a doctorate in that discipline. Having traveled to Africa for his doctoral research, befriending figures such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya’s first president) and George Padmore (prominent Pan-Africanist), Bunche was a distinguished scholar on decolonization and used his talents to help build the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor. Bunche then joined the UN, quickly building a reputation as an exemplary diplomat. He is best known for his negotiation of the ceasefire for the first Arab-Israeli War in 1949, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize — the first person of African descent so honored.
Upon his return, President Truman offered Bunche the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian and African affairs, a highly coveted post at the time. Had he accepted, Bunche would have been the highest ranking African American in the U.S. government and would have been poised to be selected as the first Black Secretary of State.
Why did Bunche decline the offer? He did not want to subject himself or his family to being humiliated and degraded by segregation in Washington, D.C. and Virginia under Jim Crow laws. Bunche publicly denied President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Rusk as they lobbied him to accept the position, choosing instead to put his talents to use at the UN.
Bunche’s story is not one that is often told but reveals a common theme of the importance of Black participation — both directly and indirectly — in foreign affairs. The success of US foreign policy has depended largely on Black Americans since the Cold War era and its legitimacy still hinges on correcting ongoing racial disparities. To put it plainly, addressing the plight of Black Americans is a strategic objective, but above all else it is the right thing to do.
When Propaganda Isn’t Propaganda
As the US sought to manage the Cold War on the international stage, it found itself facing a crisis in its own backyard: the Civil Rights Movement. Images of Black Americans suffering from state-sanctioned violence plastered the pages of newspapers across the globe. This provided the Soviet Union ammunition that framed the US as a hypocritical nation that promoted human rights and social equality in speech but never in practice. This would, in fact, become a central argument the Soviets deployed to put the US in a precarious position — the moment propaganda became reality.
The first significant challenge came during the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas when, after the Supreme Court declared racially-segregated public schools unconstitutional, nine Black students were forcibly denied access to Little Rock’s Central High School by the National Guard deployed by Governor Orval Faubus. The situation had become so ugly that then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained to Attorney-General Brownell that the crisis in Arkansas was “ruining our foreign policy.” He continued: “The effect of this in Asia and Africa will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.” Eisenhower responded by federalizing the National Guard and using it to enforce the federal court order. In his address to the nation in 1957, Eisenhower cited international backlash against the US as a reason for clamping down on the obscene behavior in Little Rock, stating:
“At a time when we face grave situations abroad because of the hatred that Communism bears toward a system of government based on human rights, it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world. Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation. We are portrayed as a violator of those standards of conduct which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations.”
The Soviets were strategic in broadcasting the hypocrisy of US support for human rights, focusing much of their messaging on Africa and Asia, both of which were decolonizing. Declassified documents from the Kennedy administration paint a vivid picture of the degree to which the Soviets publicized racial events in America and the level of seriousness the US placed on these accusations. One such document, titled “Soviet Media Coverage of Current US Racial Crisis,” dated June 14, 1963, outlined four major themes of Soviet propaganda:
- Racism is Inevitable in the American Capitalist System
- Inaction of the US Government is Tantamount to Support of the Racists
- Hypocrisy of US Posture as Leader of the “Free” World
- Implications of US policy towards Asia, Africa, and Latin America
The message was clear: morally sound policy abroad was impossible without a similar posture at home. If the US wanted a credible foreign policy, it would first need to get its own house in order.
So it tried. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. came up with the idea of exporting some of America’s greatest talent in order to combat the culturally savage narrative the Soviets were pushing: Jazz Ambassadors. The State Department started a worldwide goodwill tour of Black American jazz artists featuring some of the biggest names including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. They took their music throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia in an attempt to restore America’s image against the backdrop of segregation. The tours drew large crowds wherever the artists went and succeeded in combating the Soviet narrative.
However, the jazz legends were very aware of their position as the most influential foreign policy practitioners of the US. They were careful not to be used by the State Department as mere puppets and would behave on their own terms. As Gillespie said when the State Department attempted to coach him on answering questions concerning racial inequality in the US, “I’ve got 300 years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us, and I’m not going to make any excuses.”
The Jazz Ambassadors, and even the thousands of civil rights activists, demonstrated a thorough understanding of the leverage they possessed over the US government in creating the global image of their country. The US depended on them, Black Americans, to shape the nation’s greatest foreign policy objective — and suffered without them.
Internationalizing Blacks Lives Matter
The house is not in order. With the clever use of technology, the world has recently learned of an alarming number of killings of unarmed Black Americans by a police force that is not held accountable. In the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, protestors have taken to the streets once again to demand the demilitarization of the police and accountability for officials who cover up police murders of Black Americans. These activists’ message is simple: “stop killing us.”
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri captured the world’s attention as images and videos emerged of militarized police units cracking down on peaceful protest. As was the case with the Soviets in the 50s and 60s, prominent critics of the US seized this opportunity to blast the country for its persistent racial disparities. The Kremlin’s foreign ministry doubled down on its criticism of the US, saying that “while urging other countries to guarantee the freedom of speech and not to suppress anti-government protests, the United States authorities at home are not too soft with those actively expressing discontent over persistent inequalities, actual discrimination and the situation of ‘second class’ citizens.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to criticize the Americans, stating “Today the world is a world of tyranny and lies. The flag of #HumanRights is borne by enemies of human rights w/US leading them! #Ferguson” Egypt, often a target of American criticism for its treatment of protestors, took the opportunity to chide the US, urging authorities to “exercise restraint” and deal with protesters in accordance with international standards. The Islamic State was eager to join the chorus by tweeting out photos of Ferguson unrest with images of protesters engulfed in tear gas. Most recently, the water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan has galvanized Black activists, prompting them to go to the UN to plead their case and seek an investigation.
Get the House in Order
From Ralph Bunche to the Civil Rights Movement to the Flint Water Crisis, Black Americans are keenly aware of the pivotal role they play in America’s ability to conduct successful foreign policy. The United States must first address ongoing racial disparities before it attempts to hold itself as the pinnacle of moral leadership. Policymakers are often forced to choose between detachment and ethical commitments. This is not one of those cases. The plight of Black Americans bears direct consequence to the implementation of foreign policy. As the US prepares to face threats such as an emboldened Russia, the Islamic State (ISIS), and a belligerent North Korea, building the capacity for moral leadership must be considered equally as important as military and economic superiority. This will require unequivocal recognition that Black Lives Matter.
Larry Ornez Harris, Jr. is a second-year graduate student at American University’s School of International Affairs.