In the past fifty years, the Civil Rights movement has changed America more than any other social movement. The efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King and others profoundly altered America’s treatment of its minorities, in a way which represents one of its most powerful domestic accomplishments over the past century.
Yet one aspect of the Civil Rights movement has always been neglected in the conventional history of the movement. This was its connection to the Cold War. For America to win the Cold War, Civil Rights was a necessity. Continuing domestic discrimination against non-white minorities would make it impossible to win over the newly-free Third World.
Politicians at the time understood this very well, and it wasn’t as if they kept this fact secret. Presidents, such as Harry Truman, explicitly linked the Cold War to America’s race relationships. They put it in their speeches. They put it in their political advertisements.
Take this rather amazing ad by Republican candidate Richard Nixon:
This is Richard Nixon, of all people, endorsing Civil Rights in 1960.
What is more, Mr. Nixon spends more than half the ad explicitly telling the American people how Civil Rights is necessary for the fight against communism:
Why must we vigorously defend them [Civil Rights]? First, because it is right and just.
And second, because we cannot compete successfully against communism if we fail to utilize completely the minds and energy of all our citizens.
And third, the whole world is watching us. When we fail to grant equality to all, that makes news – bad news – for America all over the world.
This is not the type of rhetoric the history books talk about when discussing the Civil Rights – and yet here it is, in front of our faces.
There is also the phrase “The whole world is watching us.” This was an iconic Civil Rights phrase, and its true meaning has somewhat been diluted in the history books.
Civil Rights activists knew as well as everybody else that Civil Rights was tightly linked to the Cold War. They used this fact as a vital leverage to achieve their goals; it is no coincidence that the Freedom Rides started just a month before President Kennedy met Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit. This is also why Dr. Martin Luther King kept his opposition to the Vietnam War silent for so long.
So when Civil Rights activists said, “The whole world is watching us,” they literally meant that the newly decolonized nations of the Third World were watching America’s treatments of its minorities. Newly free black, brown, and yellow nations could not support a country that continued treating non-whites like second-class citizens at home.
And even conservatives like Richard Nixon himself used the phrase!
All in all, this aspect of Civil Rights traditionally isn’t discussed much. To say that Civil Rights came about not just through sheer altruism, but also because of self-interest, diminishes the mythology that has built up around the movement.
But it makes more sense. America did not just randomly decide to be nicer to black people in the 1960s, instead of the 1920s or the 1890s. Instead, it ended segregation because not doing so would greatly damage the fight against communism. Civil Rights was therefore not just the right thing to do, but also vitally important to the national interest.
All this is not to diminish the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement, nor to ignore the heroism of its leaders. Civil Rights was probably the best thing that happened to the United States in the past fifty years. It fundamentally changed the country from a system based upon coercion to what it is today.
But saying that Civil Rights happened because of pure altruism vastly oversimplifies the reality. The Civil Rights movement did happen, in the words of Mr. Nixon, “because it is right and just.” But it also happened so America could “compete successfully against communism.”