A man is doused with milk after being hit by an eye irritant from security forces trying to disperse demonstrators in Ferguson.
A man is doused with milk after being hit by an eye irritant from security forces trying to disperse demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, August 20, 2014.
Adrees Latif / Courtesy Reuters

As the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, unfolds, questions about the United States’ commitment to human rights are once more headlining news coverage around the world. The uncomfortable international spotlight on such domestic problems should not be surprising. American racial inequality regularly dominated foreign news coverage during the 1950s and 1960s. U.S. policymakers were eventually forced to respond, in part to protect America’s image abroad. As it reflects on how to handle the protests in Ferguson, the Obama administration would do well to consider the fact that, in previous decades, federal intervention was eventually needed to protect both civil rights and U.S. foreign relations.

The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer—and the resulting protests—have been front-page news in many countries. On August 20, Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan and the Kuwait Times published the same shocking photograph of an officer in riot gear pointing a rifle at a woman on the ground. The United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News featured white law enforcement officers in military-style gear holding high-powered rifles. Coverage of the events in Ferguson has been particularly extensive in Turkey, too. And news services across Europe, Africa, and South America have followed the story. Of particular note, the unrest in Ferguson was featured prominently on Russian state television, reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s extensive coverage of American race discrimination during the Cold War. And in China, commentary in Xinhua, the state news agency, suggested that Ferguson shows that a “racial divide still remains a deeply rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart.”

Many foreign writers covering the story charge the United States with hypocrisy. The United States has “assaulted almost 200 countries across the world for their so-called poor human rights records,” Li Li, a reporter for Xinhua, recently wrote. But “what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.” Similarly, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took to Twitter to criticize the U.S. human rights record, posting photos from Ferguson alongside historic images of racial segregation and using the hashtag #Ferguson. Criticism from Khamenei and Chinese sources might be expected, but history shows that violations of rights in the United States generally becomes a justification for other nations to ignore human rights in their own backyards. Flagrant race discrimination, moreover, undermines U.S. efforts to appeal to the hearts and minds of peoples of the world.

To historians of the United States during the Cold War years, the global reaction to Ferguson is familiar. Protest against American racism and segregation was a world story in the 1950s and 1960s. Consider what happened in 1963. Civil rights demonstrators focused protest efforts on Birmingham, Alabama, a city with endemic segregation. City leaders responded by getting a court injunction against protest marches. The protests continued, however, and marchers were arrested. Then, in early May, children staged a peaceful march and were met with Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s high-powered fire hoses, which flattened the marchers against buildings and knocked them down. Images of a police dog lunging at a young man in the grip of a police officer soon appeared in newspapers across the United States and around the world.

In the Soviet Union, Birmingham was depicted as a particularly dramatic example of racism, but race had already long been a theme in Soviet anti-American propaganda. The Soviets, realizing that knowledge about American segregation was widespread, used it extensively. A 1963 cartoon featured an African American student blocked from entering a school by an angry Bull Connor, with Ku Klux Klansmen, racist signs, and burning crosses in the background. American diplomats at the time were concerned that propaganda on race was effective because it was often based on actual news stories.

In the rest of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, the straightforward reporting out of Birmingham was also extremely damaging. The United States had put much effort into promoting the narrative that the United States was on the road to racial equality and that the progress from slavery to freedom was evidence of the superiority of democracy. Birmingham undermined that argument. Shortly after the town erupted in violence, the U.S. Information Agency reported that “substantial improvement over the past two years in Nigerian public understanding of progress in U.S. race relations is being rapidly eroded.” The U.S. embassy in Accra, Ghana, noted that the United States had “definitely lost ground” because of the crisis. When African leaders met for the first time to form the Organization of African Unity, less than three weeks after the march, they passed a resolution expressing concern and calling on the United States to “put an end to these intolerable mal-practices which are likely seriously to deteriorate relations between the African peoples and Governments … and the United States of America.”

As the crisis in Birmingham played out, many looked to U.S. President John F. 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.

The next month, Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had pledged “segregation forever,” ignored a court order and barred two African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. This set off a new round of global and national criticism. Attorney General Robert Kennedy commented that continuing troubles were bad for the country and “bad for us around the world.” In an impassioned speech that June, John F. Kennedy called civil rights a critical moral issue. “We preach freedom around the world,” he said. “But are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes?”

Eventually, Kennedy answered his own question with a landmark civil rights bill, which set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When it was debated in Congress, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the man in charge of implementing foreign policy, was one of the administration’s lead witnesses in support of it. International affairs, of course, was not the only—or even the most important—factor motivating civil rights reform in the United States. But U.S. leaders did come to see equal rights as crucial to the United States’ image abroad and to fighting the Cold War. And in the end, decisive action at home, which addressed, at least in part, segregation, disenfranchisement, and the brutal suppression of civil rights activists, did improve the United States’ image abroad. Rusk expressed his delight when the civil rights legislation was passed, saying, “this country is looked upon as the leader of those who wish to be free, and what we do here has an importance far beyond our borders.” Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda was “overjoyed” by the bill’s passage, and thought it would undercut communist criticism of the United States in Africa. 

There are strong parallels in the Birmingham and Ferguson cases. In both contexts, dramatic images of excessive force used against African American civil rights protesters have captured attention around the world. But another moment in the saga of the American civil rights movement is just as instructive a comparison: the 1957­–58 Little Rock crisis in Arkansas. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation to be unconstitutional, a federal judge ordered that nine African American students be admitted to the city’s Central High School for the 1957–58 school year. In response, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard. Troopers barred the students from entering the school as large crowds of whites protested integration.

This showdown was a major international story, with daily foreign press coverage. Reflecting on an initial absence of leadership from President Dwight D. Eisenhower which contrasted with his tenacity as supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II, the London Times commented that “the sour joke is current: ‘If President Eisenhower were alive all this wouldn’t have happened.’”

The president ultimately did intervene, and in spite of a pledge never to use federal troops to enforce a desegregation order, he sent the 101st Airborne Division to do just that. “Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation,” Eisenhower said in a speech announcing his decision. Eisenhower’s delayed but decisive action was celebrated around the world, and was seen as demonstrating that, notwithstanding the actions of racist state governors, the federal government was on the side of justice.

But this story has a little-known epilogue. The state of Arkansas ultimately responded by passing a pupil placement law that, in essence, bureaucratized segregation by creating a cumbersome administrative process that few African Americans would be able to navigate. When a similar law from the state of North Carolina was up for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court declined, allowing it to stand. Other states relied on this practice, so that real integration existed in theory but not practice. The international press didn’t notice.

Strong presidential leadership was needed to address earlier civil rights crises. It helped repair the damage to the American image, and undercut the argument that the United States was hypocritical in promoting human rights. Then, as now, protecting rights serves U.S. international relations. Whether it also leads to real justice in Ferguson, however, depends on a sustained effort once the foreign press has gone home.

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