Magazine article Newsweek

Ferguson and Garner Cases Hurt U.S. Foreign Policy; America's Race Problems Are Front-Page News from London to Baghdad, and Trumpeted to the Remotest Mountaintops Via Arab-Language Radio and TV

Magazine article Newsweek

Ferguson and Garner Cases Hurt U.S. Foreign Policy; America's Race Problems Are Front-Page News from London to Baghdad, and Trumpeted to the Remotest Mountaintops Via Arab-Language Radio and TV

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeff Stein

John F. Kennedy was bored by civil rights. In the depths of the Cold War, his main concern--and passion--was countering the Russians. When, in the summer of 1963, the Freedom Riders were refusing to retreat from savage beatings at the hands of police in Birmingham, Alabama, the young president became annoyed. It was giving Moscow a free propaganda ride.

That's "exactly the kind of thing the Communists use to make the United States look bad around the world," he complained, according to his biographer Richard Reeves. The movement "was embarrassing him" on the eve of his Vienna showdown with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, making it appear that he couldn't control events in his own country. The president turned to his civil rights adviser, Harris Wofford, and complained about the Freedom Riders. "Stop them!" he demanded. "Get your friends off those buses." On another occasion, when Maryland's Jim Crow laws prevented African diplomats from eating in white-only diners as they drove from New York to Washington, Kennedy gibed, "Tell them to fly."

"Race was having a devastating impact on U.S. foreign relations vis-a-vis the Russians," recalls Mary Dudziak, a fellow at Stanford and author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. American diplomats struggled to make the case for peaceful, democratic change in the Third World (especially when the local dictator was a U.S. ally). The question was, "How can you appeal to people in newly independent countries when they see pictures of police dogs attacking protesters [in Birmingham]?" she said. "The racial problems in the U.S. undermined our ability to criticize" friendly regimes who were repressing their minorities.

President Barack Obama faces a similar challenge with the rush of bad news, photos and videotape from Ferguson, Missouri, New York's Staten Island and elsewhere, Dudziak says. More than 50 years after Birmingham, America's race problems are again front-page news, from London to Baghdad, Beijing to Tehran--and of course trumpeted to the remotest mountaintops via Arab-language radio and television stations. Russia, China and ISIS are all crowing about American "hypocrisy" in social media.

If Obama hopes to turn this around, she says, he needs to take a page from JFK. "As the crisis in Birmingham played out," Dudziak recounted in Foreign Affairs in August, "many looked to...Kennedy for action. As civil rights adviser Burke Marshall would later put it, Americans were left wondering, 'Why didn't he do something?' Ultimately, the president did do something. Namely, he sent Marshall to Birmingham, where he met with leaders from the civil rights movement and local government and businesses, and they worked out a compromise plan to desegregate the city and release jailed demonstrators. But by then Birmingham was more than a local crisis--it was also a national and international one. Because of that, managing it required more."

Kennedy did do more, after Alabama Governor George Wallace dramatically stood in "the schoolhouse door" at the state university to block the enrollment of African-Americans. Taking steps that would eventually turn out to be political suicide for the Democratic Party in the South, Kennedy federalized the National Guard to protect the black students, drew up a major civil rights bill and, in a major address at American University, called civil rights "a moral issue--as old as the Scriptures and--as clear as the American Constitution. …

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