The words and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King have inspired many peoples and nations, for his hopes for a world of equality, respect, and human rights are their dreams too.
In foreign capitals on the holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday, Ambassadors will share his legacies with local leaders at receptions, and Public Diplomacy officers often organize events at schools, universities, and American centers. A reading from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is often featured.
While Dr. King’s was the most eloquent voice of the Civil Rights movement, there were others appealing to Americans’ consciences. President John F. Kennedy, for instance, addressed civil rights in an address two months earlier – a speech influenced by the Director of the U.S. Information Agency, Edward R. Murrow.
Responding to the shocks of 1963
The dramatic television coverage of the police in Birmingham, Alabama, turning fire hoses on civil rights marchers shocked America and the world in May, 1963. On June 11, Governor George Wallace of Alabama staged his famous “stand at the schoolhouse door” to prevent the admission of African-American students to the University of Alabama. President Kennedy ordered the federalization of the Alabama National Guard troops, desegregating the University by assuring the students could attend classes.
In a speech that evening, President Kennedy announced his support for federal civil rights legislation. Civil rights was not a sectional issue, a partisan issue, or just a legal or legislative issue, the President argued. It was a moral issue. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
This televised “Report to the American People on Civil Rights” was drafted hastily, but in my judgment, it was particularly effective because it is so plain-spoken. The lack of rhetorical adornment made the President’s argument much more direct and powerful.
The role of international opinion
In his 2010 oral history interview for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Ambassador William B. Jones recalled a foreign policy dimension of the civil rights issue. “The Soviet Union, of course, every time there was a racial incident in the United States, exploited it all over the world, tried to use it against us, tried to use it as a wedge, particularly with the darker skinned races, not just Africans, but Asians as well.” Speaking of his work with the leaders of African countries, Ambassador Jones noted, “some of the African leaders were quite unsophisticated about our culture. Many of them had been to either Great Britain or France, but very few, if any, had ever been to the United States and they’d heard stories about the South and about segregation and about lynching as well as other intolerable actions and discriminatory customs. Those were some of the things that we had to overcome.”
At the beginning of the speech, the President cued the American people that the struggle for civil rights in the United States was not only domestic, for “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.”
The Public Diplomacy reference came later in the speech. “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?”
This short and direct paragraph tells us that international criticisms of the United States had penetrated America’s domestic discourse on civil rights, equality, and freedom. The distance between America’s professed ideals and the realities of discrimination and segregation not only clouded the promise of the Declaration of Independence and tens of thousands of self-congratulatory Independence Day speeches. It had become a foreign policy problem too.
Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field representative for Mississippi, was murdered early the next morning, on June 12. Coverage of the murder crowded out news of the President’s speech, but the White House staff proceeded with drafting legislation, eventually enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The role of Edward R. Murrow
Within the Kennedy administration, it was USIA Director Edward R. Murrow who most forcefully argued that racial discrimination in America impaired support for the United States in the Cold War, especially as African colonies attained their independence. Historians are still debating President’s Kennedy’s own support for civil rights — was it too deferential to Democrats in Congress, too laggard, or was it realistic and deliberate? We can see in the June 11 speech, however, that the President had absorbed Murrow’s concept.
How USIA officers overseas dealt with civil rights issues during Murrow’s stewardship of USIA — how his insights were “operationalized,” so to speak, by distributing the President’s words to opinion leaders and in films, publications, speakers, programs at American Centers, and broadcasts — is a large topic worthy of future dissertations. Study would yield, I am confident, many “lessons learned” for the present. Here’s one:
In the early 1960s, USIS public affairs officers provided express reports to Washington on foreign opinion and coverage of civil rights in the U.S. Most Public Diplomacy work in the Foreign Service is directed out — explaining American foreign policy and advocating its positions. President Kennedy’s address tells us, though, that it’s important to spend as much time listening as speaking — and to tell Washington what foreign publics are saying.
The distance between American ideals and reality is always a factor in perceptions of the United States, even when America’s critics include regimes that baldly ignore their own violations of human rights. Reporting is what Foreign Service officers do. Listening is what “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind” is about.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.