A Note on Desegregation and the Cold War

In her provocative 1988 Stanford Law Review article, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Mary Dudziak, a law professor at Emory, documents the concern among US elites that Soviet propaganda was having far reaching effects, not only on the freedom’s struggle with world communism, but on capitalist interests in the Third World. These concerns translated into a deliberate elite strategy. Dudziak argues that anticommunist ideology was so pervasive that it set the terms of the debate on all sides of the civil rights issue. Leaning on Dudziak but going a beyond her work, I briefly note a few things about this history in this blog as background for my September 2019 blog entry “The Black Panthers: Black Radicalism and the New Left.” But, more broadly, I want to suggest here is that attempts to shape civil rights in a direction beneficial to global bourgeois interests, especially by progressive elites, played a role in radicalizing the black movement, producing in the end a situation that has undermined the proletarian struggle for genuine progress.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Cold War thinking as motivation for elites pushing civil rights was often explicit. The Truman Administration argued before the Supreme Court that recognizing the civil rights movement was vital to world peace and national security. In the aftermath of of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that propelled the dismantling of apartheid, the Republican National Committee issued a statement claiming that the Court decision “falls appropriately within the Eisenhower Administration’s many-fronted attack on global Communism. Human equality at home is a weapon of freedom.” Following the decision, newspapers in the United States and, indeed, throughout the world celebrated Brown as a “blow to communism.”

There were other less explicit moments in the orchestration of desegregation. Elites were concerned that the civil rights movement could move too fast. Following Eisenhower, the Kennedy Administration took an active role in institutionalizing and, in effect, dampening the intensity of racial struggle. Hegemonic activity of the consensual sort Antonio Gramsci describes in his writings is evident in this process. For example, the Kennedy was successful in persuading the leaders of the 1963 march on Washington to eliminate from its speaker pool radicals critical of the United States political economic system. Several of the speakers were instructed to clean up their speeches and tone down their rhetoric.

Radical historian Howard Zinn contends that the government pursued compromise so they could subvert the movement from within, thus containing civil rights within parameters beneficial to capital. Zinn’s contention is somewhat cynical and incomplete, but it is nonetheless the case that these efforts helped drive radical elements of black struggle underground. However, it did not purge movement politics of them. Black radicals regrouped and retooled their thinking and their tactics. In response, the 1960s saw the shift in the black critique from attacking the legacy of segregation by appealing to the American Creed to a focus on the fundamental structure of political and economic power in what was conceptualized as a racist state capitalism. See “The Black Panthers: Black Radicalism and the New Left” for details.

But Cold War-inspired compromise was only part of the elite strategy. As Gramsci tells us, hegemony is not only maintained by engineering consent, but also through coercion. The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a counterintelligence program, better known by its acronym COINTELPRO, comprised of five large-scale programs aimed at neutralizing what the agency perceived as threats to the internal security of the United States. The program was based on the counterinsurgency tactics the national security state (NSA and CIA) was using abroad. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and information made public during federal government oversight hearings conducted by United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, popularly known as the Church Committee, have revealed a particular interest in what the FBI called “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups.” Several groups fell under this label, but the Black Panthers preoccupied the COINTELPRO mind during the years between 1967 and 1971. FBI tactics included disseminating misinformation, deploying agent provocateurs, assisting local police in conducting raids on Panther headquarters, and framing members of the Black Panther Party for unsolved crimes. These actions, while ultimately successfully in crushing the Party, also resulted in the glorification of Black Power. As Medgar Evers put it, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”

The radicalization of the black movement deeply troubled elites. For one thing, it was beyond the limits they had set for racial justice, which was to be kept within the framework of the abolition of de jure segregation and individual discrimination. But particularly disturbing was the connection black radicals were making to imperialism’s victims in the Third World. In the globalization of radical black consciousness, revolutionary forces were developing a critique about the capitalist world system foreign to the traditions of the West, a critique that peddled the rhetoric of the colonial subject, the racialized subaltern. This not only threatened imperialist fortunes everywhere in the world (a good thing) but the legitimacy of the modern nation-state with its values in humanism, liberalism, rationalism, and secularism (a bad thing). As these values were the imperialistic values of “white supremacy,” they were in need of overthrowing, as well. Indeed, the cultural theory of the New Left lifted from Gramsci required subverting these values in order to advance the overthrow of western civilization.

Far from putting the legacy of racism behind it, elite machinations fed a dynamic of radicalization that would spawn a new era of racial antagonism. Radicalization occurred in the context of New Left perversions, which pushed civil rights—and politics generally—from its roots in American conceptions of freedom and democracy towards a wholesale rejection of Enlightenment values. More than Stokely Carmichael’ belittling characterization of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “reformer who was good for the image of America,” the New Left eschewed the Old Left’s commitment to orthodox Marxian concepts and politics, and took up instead the anti-American standpoint of such prominent Second and Third World revolutionaries as Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. These developments mingled with the nihilistic turn in French philosophy to threaten civilization itself. Given its deeply illiberal character, it is not inaccurate to describe this as a post-civil right politics . It is this character that lies at the foundation of contemporary antiracism and critical race theory. Black Lives Matter is a disjunctive break from the civil rights of Martin Luther King, Jr. The New Left, however much it appeals to the dialectic, because of its obsession with race, is incapable of grasping the West as a contradiction in need of a full becoming—the establishment of democratic socialism in the context of the Enlightenment. Therefore, the critical turn in leftwing politics not only threatened bourgeois interests; it threatened proletarian interests, as well. If it was not clear in the moment, history has revealed Black Power was hardly a revolutionary politics, but a reactionary one.

To return to the premise of this blog to make its conclusion as clear as possible, and to add an additional and crucial point, the same Cold War imperatives that influenced the establishment to join with the civil rights movement and its leader to overcome the systemic racism that had long plagued the United States brought the Cold War home to the US and played a role in turning many black and white Americans against their own country and the West more generally. The great catastrophe in these developments is that they have only helped strengthen the transnational corporate power structure that stands over the world and against a working class made up of the majority of all races. Woke corporations and the technocratic elite have explicitly taken up the language of Black Power and wield it against the proletariat.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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