How Martin Luther King's 'dream' was shaped by the Cold War


NEW YORK — As America commemorates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today and continues to measure the meaning of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, I can recall quite vividly the first time I heard King’s riveting “I Have A Dream” speech.

It was 1971, I was eight years old, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Feinstein, played a recording of the speech and asked the class why Dr. King could only dream of living in a world where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

A lively classroom discussion ensued and predictably continued at home with our parents that evening. For me, an African American youth who was no stranger to racism growing up in inner city Los Angeles, the speech was galvanizing. It offered so many rays of hope for equality that I memorized significant passages, which I could recite with the same religious fervor as Dr. King, and ultimately landed the role of the civil rights leader in the school’s Black History Month program.

I am now 50 years old and have spent the bulk of my professional career as a foreign correspondent, but little did I know then in grade school that King’s speech, which seemed so domestic in nature, had monumental international consequences in ways that have not been so obvious.

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The fight for civil rights in America was undoubtedly linked to the Cold War struggle of ideologies between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides undertook massive propaganda campaigns, using race in America to promote their form of government as more just than the other. And The March on Washington, particularly the "Dream" speech, threatened as much to undermine America’s claim as leader of the Free World as it did to buttress it and spark a global movement for racial equality.

In her book, “Cold War Civil Rights,” Mary Dudziak, a legal historian at Emory University, makes a convincing case that the Cold War and America’s need to burnish its international image aided the civil rights movement and facilitated the passage of major civil rights legislation. According to Dudziak, the Kennedy administration was greatly concerned that racial issues were undermining its ability to advance its anti-Communist agenda, especially in emerging regions like Africa, Asia and Latin America.

For America to win the Cold War, it had to win the hearts and minds of the newly free countries and it could not do that without showing the world that it stood for equality by advancing civil rights.

Images of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963 were being used by the Soviet propaganda machine to discredit the United States. America’s treatment of blacks had become an issue of international embarrassment.

Kennedy advisers, Dudziak says, were extremely worried that the Washington march, which was a global news event being covered by the international press, would be viewed through a negative prism, and thus the administration sought to cast the demonstration as a showcase of the democratic process in which hundreds of thousands of American citizens seeking redress could protest peacefully in the nation’s capital.

What is often forgotten is that King’s speech was at its core not a dream of what America could be but rather an indictment of what America was – a country that had failed to live up to its founding principles of equality. In the first half of the speech, King is searing in his criticism: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

However, the "Dream" speech is mainly remembered for its optimism and promise, perhaps not so much due to the spin of the administration but rather the great oratory of Dr. King. Undeniable, nonetheless, is the impact that international relations had and continues to have on the United States domestic civil rights policy.

As a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, I would come to know first-hand just how deep and abiding was the Communist propaganda on race. In 2000, I hopped aboard a cruise ship taking South Korean tourists for a day of hiking in the picturesque Kumgang Mountains in North Korea – one of the few ways to enter that hermetic Communist country at that time.

Once ashore, I received a very different welcome from the North Korean locals than did Dennis Rodman on his recent visit to Pyongyang to hang out with Kim Jong Un. Back then, most North Koreans assumed I was Cuban, but when I told them I was an American, one North Korean border guard saluted me in homage to Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and civil rights activist, who was widely respected in the Communist bloc for his embrace of Communism during a trip to the Soviet Union.

Throughout my foreign reporting career, especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia, I was constantly dogged by the same question: “America is such a great country, but why is it so racist?”

My response was always that America is far less racist than most countries but it suffers from a long-standing image of racism due to its legacy of slavery and the great attention Americans place on addressing it. Incidents of racism are taken more seriously in the United States than anywhere else. The news media reports on them, political leaders denounce them, perpetrators are prosecuted, there are protests and boycotts, public apologies and promises to do better. America remains the world standard bearer for equality and the world is watching.

The dream that Dr. King envisioned five decades ago continues to resonate across America and the world, informing and inspiring new and innovative social justice movements far and wide that few could have imagined. From the townships in South Africa to the shipyards in Poland, from Northern Ireland to China to Burma and the Arab Spring and beyond, Dr. King’s dream had influence. While there were numerous factors motivating civil rights reform in the 1960’s, primarily pure altruism, America’s image and foreign policy also played significant roles.

So the "Dream" speech, which came to embody the goals and aspirations of a formerly enslaved people in America, not only served to shape international events but was motivated by them.

Calvin Sims is a cross-sector leader with more than 20 years of experience in journalism, philanthropy and international affairs. In August 2013, Sims was named President and CEO of International House, the New York non-profit program and residence center with a mission to promote cross cultural understanding and peace and prepare leaders for the global community.


This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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