Birmingham, Addis Ababa and the Image of America: Managing the Impact of Civil Rights on Foreign Affairs During the Kennedy Administration
34 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 1998
Date Written: February 19, 1998
When Birmingham, Alabama Police Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in the spring of 1963, his brutality shocked the nation. News reports with graphic photos also blanketed the international press, reinforcing international concern about racial justice in America. As it had during the Truman and Eisenhower years, the Soviet Union took advantage of the propaganda value of these images, and greatly increased its focus on American racial problems in anti-American broadcasts and print media.
President John F. Kennedy was highly attuned to the impact of racial incidents on the U.S. image abroad. Birmingham created a crisis of greater magnitude for the Administration than had the Freedom Rides or James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi. Birmingham hit the international press as African leaders convened for a unity conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As African heads of state turned their attention to Birmingham, contemplating whether such incidents might cause a break in U.S.-African relations, the Kennedy Administration focused on damage control. The stakes were high. Protecting the image of American democracy had national security implications during the cold war years. In the early 1960s, following admission of newly independent African states to the U.N., it had important consequences for U.N. politics as well.
Civil rights activists risked their lives to put racial justice on the nation's agenda in the 1960s, and civil rights reform during those years was certainly influenced by factors having nothing to do with diplomacy. Yet this paper argues that Kennedy Administration civil rights policy, even as it was pushed by the movement, was framed with the impact of civil rights on foreign affairs among the Administration's most pressing concerns.
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