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Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement: Primary Sources

Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement: Primary Sources

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Analyze a primary source to examine the effects of the cold war on civil rights

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what's covered
As the United States promoted liberty, democracy, and capitalism during the Cold War, it became increasingly evident that domestic racial problems complicated the effort to win hearts and minds abroad. The Soviet Union highlighted racial inequality in the U.S. as a way to increase its influence in Asia and Africa. Some African Americans recognized that civil rights battles in the U.S. were part of a larger struggle for freedom by people of color across the world. For these reasons, some historians have asserted that the American civil rights movement is best understood in the context of the Cold War.

This tutorial gives you an opportunity to test that assertion through primary source analysis.

  1. The Rise of Human Rights
  2. “An Appeal to the World”
  3. To Secure These Rights
  4. The Cold War and Civil Rights

1. The Rise of Human Rights

In 1948, the United Nations (U.N.), the international organization that replaced the League of Nations after World War II, issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

did you know
The committee that drafted the declaration was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt examines a draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in Spanish.

The Universal Declaration was an attempt to address the death and dislocation resulting from World War II. For instance, the genocide committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust indicated the need for an international body to investigate human rights abuses during war (and peace).

Additional Resource

Watch a short Film from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Path to Nazi Genocide


(You won't be tested on this.)
did you know
After World War II, the Allies tried many German officers and officials for crimes against humanity. In October of 1946, ten Nazi officials were executed for their role in the Holocaust.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights began by stating that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Next, it identified, in a series of 30 articles, the rights and liberties that were to be enjoyed by all people. Among others, they included the following:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
think about it
  1. How did the United Nations define human rights?
  2. Why was the Universal Declaration a priority for the U.N. three years after the end of World War II?

By indicating that distinctions would not be made according to sovereignty, the Declaration maintained that liberty was the right of every person, simply because they were human. Furthermore, it affirmed that the U.N. — an international body — would monitor how nations treated their citizens.

Due to Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both opposed the addition of an enforcement provision to the human rights declaration, fearing that the U.N. might hinder their foreign policy objectives. As a result, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has never included an enforcement mechanism. It was nevertheless evident that, in the aftermath of World War II, “human rights” would be a political issue that both superpowers had to confront.

did you know
According to the United Nations website, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into 500 languages.

2. “An Appeal to the World”

Black civil rights activists in the U.S. followed global discussions of human rights closely. In 1945, W. E. B. Du Bois remained active in the NAACP, but began to devote more time and energy to international matters concerning people of color, especially pan-Africanism.

term to know
The notion that African Americans have a distinct racial heritage, and that Africa is the true homeland of all ethnic Africans
did you know
In 1945, Du Bois was part of a delegation sent by the NAACP to San Francisco to attend the formation of the United Nations.

Photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1946.

In 1947, one year before the UN issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NAACP submitted a petition asking the organization to investigate racism in the United States.

did you know
The NAACP’s petition was titled “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress”.

Du Bois (1947) wrote the Introduction to the petition, in which he described America’s history of racial inequality to the world.

"An Appeal to the World", W.E.B. Du Bois

“There are in the United States of America, fifteen millions or more of native-born citizens, something less than a tenth of the nation, who form largely a segregated caste, with restricted legal rights, and many illegal disabilities. They are descendants of the Africans brought to America during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and reduced to slave labor….

A nation which boldly declared “All men equal,” proceeded to build its economy on chattel slavery; masters who declared race-mixture impossible, sold their own children into slavery and left a mulatto progeny which neither law nor science can today disentangle; churches which excused slavery as calling the heathen to God, refused to recognize the freedom of converts or admit them to equal communion….Poverty, ignorance, disease, and crime have been forced on these unfortunate victims of greed to an extent far beyond any social necessity; and a great nation, which today ought to be in the forefront of the march toward peace and democracy, finds itself continuously making common cause with race hate, prejudiced exploitation and oppression of the common man.”

think about it
How does Du Bois’s discussion of American history through the lens of race challenge the perception of the United States as a nation of “peace and democracy”? Du Bois concluded his introduction with an “appeal to the world” in which he asked the "Peoples of the World" to pay attention to the African-American struggle for civil rights:

“We appeal to the world to witness that this attitude of America is far more dangerous to mankind than the Atom bomb; and far, far more clamorous for attention than disarmament or treaty. To disarm the hidebound minds of men is the only path to peace; and as long as Great Britain and the United States profess democracy with one hand and deny it to millions with the other, they convince none of their sincerity, least of all themselves….

Therefore, Peoples of the World, we American Negroes appeal to you; our treatment in America is not merely an internal question of the United States. It is a basic problem of humanity; of democracy; of discrimination because of race and color; and as such it demands your attention and action.”
think about it
Although some members of the UN sympathized with Du Bois’s “Appeal”, the organization decided that it did not have jurisdiction to investigate racism in the U.S. What is the significance of Du Bois’s appeal, if the UN could not act upon it?
Compare Du Bois’s “Appeal” with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?

3. To Secure These Rights

W. E. B. Du Bois' efforts to bring racism in the United States to the attention of the world, and discussions regarding human rights in the United Nations, contributed to the context in which President Truman’s administration addressed race during the late 1940s.

In December of 1946, Truman created a Presidential Committee on Civil Rights to investigate racism in the U.S. Less than one year later, in October of 1947, the Committee published its findings in a report titled To Secure These Rights.

The report was notable for two reasons. First, it provided one of the most detailed examinations of racial inequality in the U.S. during the 20th century. Throughout 1947, the Committee held hearings and gathered evidence that exposed patterns of racial discrimination in employment, housing, and voting.

It also noted widespread police brutality against African Americans in urban areas. The report stated that, “In various localities, scattered throughout the country, unprofessional or undisciplined police, while avoiding brutality, fail to recognize and to safeguard the civil rights of the citizenry. Insensitive to the necessary limits of police authority, untrained officers frequently overstep the bounds of their proper duties. At times this appears in unwarranted arrests, unduly prolonged detention before arraignment, and abuse of the search and seizure power.”

Second, the committee concluded that the federal government must take a lead role in ensuring equal protection under the law and eliminating discrimination. It provided three reasons for doing so. The first was “The Moral Reason”:

To Secure These Rights

“It is impossible to decide who suffers the greatest moral damage from our civil rights transgressions, because all of us are hurt. That is certainly true of those who are victimized. Their belief in the basic truth of the American promise is undermined….The damage to those who are responsible for these violations of our moral standards may well be greater….All of us must endure the cynicism about democratic values which our failures breed.”

think about it
What is the “moral damage” of “civil rights transgressions” to African Americans? To white Americans?

The report also provided an “Economic Reason” for ending racial discrimination, highlighting employment and economic discrimination that African Americans and other minority groups experienced. Finally, the report presented an “International Reason” for promoting racial equality which referenced the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union:

“We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world's press and radio are full of it. This Committee has seen a multitude of samples. We and our friends have been, and are, stressing our achievements. Those with competing philosophies have stressed -- and are shamelessly distorting -- our shortcomings. They have not only tried to create hostility toward us among specific nations, races, and religious groups. They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people….

The international reason for acting to secure our civil rights now is not to win the approval of our totalitarian critics. We would not expect it if our record were spotless; to them our civil rights record is only a convenient weapon with which to attack us. Certainly we would like to deprive them of that weapon. But we are more concerned with the good opinion of the peoples of the world.”
think about it
  1. Who was the report referring to when it mentioned “those with competing philosophies” and “totalitarian critics”?
  2. According to the report, what is the international reason for enforcing civil rights in the United States?
  3. Who is the intended audience for the report?

4. The Cold War and Civil Rights

Some historians, including Mary L. Dudziak, have recently argued that civil rights milestones (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education) should be considered in the context of the Cold War. In her 2004 article, “Brown as a Cold War Case”, Dudziak noted that Brown received extensive international coverage. African-American newspapers throughout the nation listed the potentially-positive results that the decision might have for people of color around the world. Chief Justice Warren also recognized the impact that the Supreme Court's decision might have on the Cold War.

did you know
In an August, 1954 speech in Chicago, Warren said, “Our American system like all others is on trial both at home and abroad….[T]he extent to which we maintain the spirit of our Constitution...will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile.”

Based on this evidence, Dudziak concluded that the American civil rights movement, the Cold War, and international discussions of human rights were intertwined.

Using what you’ve learned about the Cold War and the civil rights movement in Unit II, are you convinced that the Cold War significantly influenced the civil rights movement? What evidence from this and other tutorials would you use to support your conclusion?
The civil rights movement did not evolve in a vacuum. By using the "5 Cs", particularly “Context”, we can find evidence that agitation for civil rights by African Americans coincided with international debate regarding human rights after World War II. President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights recognized the Cold War implications of the civil rights struggle, as did Chief Justice Earl Warren. Based on this evidence, some historians have concluded that the civil rights movement is best understood in the context of the Cold War.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Roosevelt, PD, Universal Dec of Human Rights. Ret from U of MN Human Rights Library: Du Bois, OER Commons: DuBois, “An Appeal to the World,” Ret To Secure These Rights, LOC The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, Truman Library, Warren quote “Text of Warren Speech at Bar ‘Home’ Dedication, New York Times, Aug 20, 1954. M. Dudziak, “Brown as a Cold War Case,” Journal of American History 91 (Jun 2004): 32-42.

Terms to Know

the notion that African Americans have a distinct racial heritage and embraced the African continent as the true homeland of all ethnic Africans.

People to Know
Harry S. Truman

democratic U.S. president who took office after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and remained in office until 1953; navigated the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the first years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

W. E. B. Du Bois

leading black intellectual and civil rights activist, advocate of Pan-Africanism, prominent spokesperson for the Niagara Movement, which called for immediate political, social, and economic equality for African Americans; co-founder of the NAACP and longtime editor of its journal The Crisis.