by Shaun Tandon
As 250,000 people packed central Washington to push for civil rights 50 years ago, the actor Burt Lancaster opened a scroll and read a petition brought in from Paris.
The statement, signed by 1,500 Americans in the French capital, saluted the March on Washington for providing “an example of what America aspires to become.”
“All Americans, traveling no matter where in the world today, are in the position of ambassadors and are very often made bitterly aware of our country’s reputation,” said the petition, read by Lancaster in his crisp delivery.
“It is not easy to be an American abroad,” said the petition, calling the movement for civil rights part of a “struggle toward freedom” being waged worldwide.
American students learn of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a defining moment in the nation’s history, with Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech and Congress less than a year later banning laws that enforced racial segregation.
But the march also carried an international dimension, coming at a delicate moment in the Cold War in which the United States increasingly realized that its oppression of African Americans cost it dearly on the global stage.
The march was one of the first events to be broadcast live internationally, with the BBC and other networks in Europe fed from the then-revolutionary Telstar satellite. The now defunct Washington Evening Star reported that police issued media credentials to television crews from Canada, France, Germany and Japan.
The Americans in Paris, in an initiative organized partly by self-exiled novelist James Baldwin, walked to the US embassy ahead of the march to show solidarity. Similar gatherings took place in other cities, although — in one echo of how little has changed 50 years later — authorities prevented a demonstration in Cairo.
Mary L. Dudziak, a professor at the Emory University School of Law and author of the book “Cold War Civil Rights,” said that John F. Kennedy’s administration initially opposed the march but, unable to stop it, gave out talking points to US diplomats.
The message, she said, was to cast the march not as a protest against racial injustice but as a triumph of free expression that could not happen under Communism. Much of the global media embraced a similar narrative, other than in the Soviet bloc where newspapers were predictably critical.
“The US government felt like they had effectively used the story of the march to reinforce their Cold War message about the wonders of democracy,” Dudziak said.
The United States, which since its independence has prided itself on its values, has faced international pressure at various points of its history over its own human rights record.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass campaigned in England before the US Civil War. In more recent times, the United States has faced European criticism over capital punishment and its prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
But Dudziak said that 1963 was a particularly sensitive moment, with much of Africa freshly independent and Cold War alliances not yet solidified.
“In this very dynamic and fluid environment, the US cared a lot about the American image. American diplomats and presidents thought that that was going to have an impact on their ability to develop alliances and keep countries on the democratic side of the column,” she said.
In a cause of deep embarrassment, African diplomats were routinely snubbed when traveling near Washington. A highway cafe in Maryland in 1961 refused to serve the ambassador of newly independent Chad as he was heading to Washington from New York to present his credentials to Kennedy.
Besides Africa, the United States paid close attention to coverage of the civil rights movement in India, a democracy which refused to take sides in the Cold War.
In an editorial at the time, The Indian Express said that African Americans “have every right to feel frustrated” with their conditions but lauded the “new mood” represented by the peace march.
In a news article, the newspaper said that the US ambassador, Chester Bowles, had sent a telegram to King voicing support for the march and noting that the civil rights leader was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence leader and apostle of non-violence. – AFP