The March on Washington, At Home and Abroad
Mary L. Dudziak
Emory University School of Law
USC Law School, Olin Working Paper No. 99-2
French Journal of American Studies, 2006
On August 28, 1963, as participants in the historic March on Washington made their way to the Lincoln Memorial, individuals in several countries around the world took to the streets and marched in support. U.S. citizens abroad and citizens of other nations, some with ties to the U.S. civil rights movement and many without, thousands marched to show their solidarity with those demonstrating in Washington.
March on Washington activities in Europe were in large part due to the efforts of James Baldwin and other African Americans in Paris. Baldwin called a meeting at a Paris nightclub that ultimately led to a petition drive that quickly spread all over Europe. Hoping to support the civil rights movement although living in Paris, African American jazz musicians, actors and others circulated a petition in the international editions of U.S. papers. In Paris, one week before the Washington March, they held a walk to the U.S. Embassy, and over 560 people deposited petitions in support of the March. That same day, U.S. citizens and others called upon U.S. diplomatic posts in other European cities, registering their support for the March. The focus on U.S. diplomatic posts was not simply due to the fact that these were U.S. government offices abroad. It was also due to the fact that these activists believed that race discrimination harmed U.S. foreign affairs, and they hoped that the international impact of the civil rights movement would spur change at home.
Apparently unrelated to these efforts, and uncoordinated with each other, on the date of the March on Washington, the Mayor of Kingston, Jamaica led a march of 2500 in that city. 1200 to 1400 marched on the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam. In Oslo, Norway, one hundred people marched through heavy rain to present a petition to the U.S. Embassy. Demonstrators with picket signs protested at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana. The Nassar government ensured that no large demonstration would take place in Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of police officers were stationed in the city early in the morning, and they stopped all but two of the thirteen marchers willing to face this police presence from approaching the U.S. Embassy. These actions pleased U.S. government representatives. As an Embassy officer put it, the government's handling of this protest was in line with the assurances to the Embassy.
The U.S. government reacted to the March on Washington by trying to affect the message projected by the marchers, and the way that message was perceived overseas. Efforts to manage the international impact of the March were consistent with broader U.S. efforts during the cold war to turn the story of race in America into a story of the superiority of democracy as a system of government. Accordingly, through efforts to influence the content of speeches, and a pre- and post-March propaganda campaign, the Administration did its best to cast the March as a story about democratic political participation, rather than as a critique of government inaction on civil rights.
Date posted: May 3, 1999