The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War

The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War

The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War

The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War

Synopsis

During the Cold War, the Soviets were quick to publicize any incident of racial hostility in the United States. Since violence by white Americans against minorities was the perfect foil to America's claim to be defenders of freedom, news of these occurrences was exploited to full advantage by the Russians. But how did the Soviets gain primary knowledge of race riots in small American towns? Certainly, the Soviets had reporters stationed stateside, in big cities like New York, but research reveals that the majority of their information came directly from U.S. media sources.

Throughout this period, the American press provided the foreign media with information about racially charged events in the United States. Such news coverage sometimes put Washington at a disadvantage, making it difficult for government officials to assuage foreign reactions to the injustices occurring on U.S. soil. Yet in other instances, the domestic press helped to promote favorable opinions abroad by articulating themes of racial progress. While still acknowledging racial abuses, these press spokesmen asserted that the situation in America was improving. Such paradoxical messages, both aiding and thwarting the efforts of the U.S. government, are the subject of The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War.

The study, by scholars Richard Lentz and Karla K. Gower, describes and analyzes the news discourse regarding U.S. racial issues from 1946 to 1965. The Opinions of Mankind not only delves into the dissemination of race-related news to foreign outlets but also explores the impact foreign perceptions of domestic racism had on the U.S. government and its handling of foreign relations during the period. What emerges is an original, insightful contribution to Cold War studies. While other books examine race and foreign affairs during this period of American history, The Opinions of Mankind is the first to approach the subject from the standpoint of press coverage and its impact on world public opinion.

This exhaustively researched and compellingly written volume will appeal to media scholars, political historians, and general readers alike. By taking a unique approach to the study of this period, The Opinions of Mankind presents the workings behind the battles for public opinion that took place between 1946 and 1965.

Excerpt

On February 25, 1946, a black woman and her nineteen-year-old son entered a radio repair shop in Columbia, Tennessee, to demand the return of their radio. An argument ensued, and one of the white repairmen fell through a plate glass window. Whites gathered in the town’s square, calling for the black mother and son to be lynched. Fearing assault or worse, blacks armed themselves and shot out the streetlights for cover. Four white policemen, half the town’s force, responded to the sound of gunfire and were wounded as they entered the black neighborhood. Sixteen hours of rioting ensued, ending with the arrival of five hundred state militiamen and highway patrolmen. Two days later at the county jail, where those arrested during the riot were being held, two blacks were killed and a sheriff’s deputy and another black were wounded.

During the Cold War, the Soviets were quick to publicize such racial incidents in the United States. Racial violence perpetrated by white Americans was the perfect foil to combat the U.S. government’s claim to be the defender of free rights for all people. Such incidents did indeed make Americans look like hypocrites at best, imperialists at worst. But how did the Soviets and the rest of the world find out about U.S. racial incidents such as the one in Columbia, a town with a population of just barely 12,000? While TASS, the official news agency of the Soviet Union, and Pravda, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, did have reporters in New York, that city was 790 miles away from the incident. Most of the information came from U.S. domestic media sources, especially the wire services.

Covering Columbia firsthand were reporters and photographers from the two major Nashville dailies, the Tennessean and the Banner, a freelancer for the U.S. wire service United Press, and an Associated Press reporter. A photographer captured a powerful photograph for Life Magazine. The picture, which seemed to show a police officer kicking an injured black man on the ground, created a national stir after Time and the African American magazine Ebony published it. A second photograph, showing a casket . . .

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