How Far the Promised Land?: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnamby Jonathan Rosenberg
How Far the Promised Land? explores the relationship between overseas developments and the most important reform movement in modern American history, the struggle for racial justice. Interweaving civil rights history, U.S. foreign relations history, and twentieth-century international history, the book contributes to the emerging effort to reconceptualize/i>
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How Far the Promised Land? explores the relationship between overseas developments and the most important reform movement in modern American history, the struggle for racial justice. Interweaving civil rights history, U.S. foreign relations history, and twentieth-century international history, the book contributes to the emerging effort to reconceptualize the study of America's past by locating it in a global context. In examining the link between international developments and the quest for racial justice, Jonathan Rosenberg argues that civil rights leaders were profoundly interested in the world beyond America and incorporated their understanding of overseas matters into their reform program in order to fortify and legitimize the message they presented to their followers, the nation, and the international community.
The book considers how a cosmopolitan group of black and white, male and female race reform leaders purposively deployed World War I and the peace settlement, the decolonization struggles in Africa and Asia, the emergence of communism and fascism, World War II, and the Cold War to help realize their domestic aspirations. Rosenberg sets this complex story against the backdrop of America's growing activism on the world stage, a development that would have significant positive implications for the domestic struggle. Central to the work is the notion that race reform leaders were animated by the idea of "color-conscious internationalism," a distinctive outlook that would affect the trajectory and momentum of the civil rights movement.
Warren I. Cohen
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How Far the Promised Land? World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam
By Jonathan Rosenberg
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionCOLOR-CONSCIOUS INTERNATIONALISM AND THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY STRUGGLE
The nightmare is over. The world awakes. The long, horrible years of dreadful night are passed. Behold the sun! We have dreamed! ... And now suddenly we awake! It is done. We are sane. We are alive.
WITH THE END of the First World War, this hymn to peace appeared in the pages of the December 1918 issue of The Crisis, the monthly organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That same month, just three weeks after the armistice was signed, the author of those hopeful lines, W.E.B. Du Bois, was on his way to France, where statesmen would gather to forge the postwar order. Representing the NAACP, America's leading race reformer would remain in Europe for more than three months on a mission possessed of both domestic and international implications. Du Bois, who was involved in a variety of efforts to ameliorate the plight of peoples of color at home and abroad, would write later that he had gone to Paris in the belief that "the destinies of mankind" were centered there.
As he crossed the Atlantic on the Orizaba, Du Bois shared a cabinwith Lester Walton, a leading black journalist, and Robert R. Moton, who had succeeded Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. The vessel carried the press corps that would cover the peace conference and according to philanthropist George Foster Peabody, who was also on board, it was fortunate Du Bois and Moton were traveling together, for this would allow them to "map out ... a program" and advance the "single-minded-cooperation of the colored people in this great crisis period ... when the future of the colored races is of so great moment." Guided by three objectives on his foreign mission, Du Bois would gather material for a proposed history of black Americans in the Great War, act as the special representative of The Crisis, and represent the NAACP in an effort to aid the cause of black peoples throughout the world. He would play a key role at the Pan-African Congress, which would meet in Paris and seek, in part, to influence the diplomatic discussions over the disposition of the former German colonies in Africa, an issue world leaders would address in the French capital. This was no assignment for the faint of heart. But Du Bois was blessed with supreme confidence in his ability to transform world affairs, and he reached Paris believing in the transcendent importance of his mission. In this respect, he was not unlike another American who would soon arrive in France: the president of the United States.
Indeed, just days before both men left for Europe, Du Bois penned an illuminating letter to Woodrow Wilson, which suggests the importance race leaders attached to the peace conference. Identifying an interconnection between developments in Paris and in the United States, Du Bois noted that race reform leaders would not hesitate to link international and domestic matters to advance their reform aims. He claimed the American race question was "intimately related to the import of the international conferences" and wrote of potential American vulnerability at Paris to charges of racial discrimination in the United States, which might lead to an "indictment of inconsistency." The reformer noted that America, which denied democratic privileges to "more than twelve million souls," was seeking to provide leadership at a conference that aimed to democratize states that had long withheld equal rights from their inhabitants. If the United States continued to deny some of its own citizens these rights, it would be "a libel on our civilization." Asserting that blacks had "earned as much consideration as most of the smaller nations whose liberties and rights" were to be safeguarded by the international agreement, Du Bois told Wilson that America "owes to the world the solution of her race problem," which should be resolved "by the same impartial and righteous judgement that is to be applied to other peoples." While the president did not respond to Du Bois's letter, it testifies to the race leader's conviction that the peace conference was supremely important in the context of the domestic struggle for racial justice. And it suggests the extent to which he believed the international gathering could help the campaign at home.
Du Bois's European journey and his views on the significance of the peace conference point to the focus of this study, which explores the interconnection between world affairs and the most important reform movement in twentieth-century American history, the African-American freedom struggle. More specifically, the work is an inquiry into why American race reform leaders found world affairs so engaging and how they incorporated their understanding of a variety of international developments into their domestic reform campaign. It is equally important to understand the way the reformers perceived American actions on the international stage from World War I to the Vietnam War, and the manner in which they responded to the country's emerging preeminence in world politics. In examining the reformers' response to international developments and American actions overseas, I consider a variety of narratives that are typically presented in different books written by different historians, and I explore the interplay between the black freedom struggle, international affairs, and America's changing role in the world.
Among the reform leaders who figure prominently in the work are W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Joel Spingarn, Mary White Ovington, William Pickens, Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ralph Bunche, and Martin Luther King, Jr. A cosmopolitan group of men and women, black and white, these were central figures in the struggle for racial justice, who toiled to end discrimination in education, voting, housing, transportation, and employment. If some occasionally subscribed to a radical perspective, by and large, these individuals were not seeking the fundamental transformation of the American political and economic order. Although such leaders were working, in a real sense, to achieve radical change, they were mainly traditional figures in the history of modern American race reform and represented the movement's mainstream.
In addition to considering the views of reform leaders, I focus closely on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which played a crucial role in the unfolding campaign for racial justice. Indeed, much of the study traces how the association and its leadership responded to global developments and American actions in world politics throughout the twentieth century. While I examine the NAACP, I also consider the worldviews of figures in other civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, the National Negro Congress, the March on Washington Movement, and later, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Although my focus is largely on top-level reformers and the organizations in which they served, I am mindful of the trend away from "top-down" studies of the movement in favor of more grass-roots approaches. To be sure, such work continues to enrich our understanding of the struggle, but I would suggest that during much of the twentieth century, a considerable amount of the movement's energy and direction came from above. From World War I through the mid-1950s, top leaders and organizations like the NAACP played a critical role in the reform effort by generating support among black Americans and by persuading the American people their cause was just. And of course, such leaders spearheaded the attack on Jim Crow in the judicial and legislative spheres. Moreover, to the extent that world affairs informed the struggle, such matters were likely more significant to national rather than local figures, who were more concerned with the day-to-day challenges of sustaining the reform enterprise, often in small and inhospitable environments.
Perhaps it is surprising that the men and women I have chosen to study-those devoted to building a more just society in the United States-would have found the world beyond America so engaging. Surely, such leaders were occupied with the daunting challenges of the reform enterprise, with publicizing the inequities of race relations in America and convincing their fellow citizens to abolish institutionalized racial oppression. One might imagine that scrutinizing, reflecting, speaking, and writing on events overseas would have weakened the reformers' efforts to effect change in the United States. But they did precisely this, and over many decades, the movement's leaders demonstrated an extraordinary interest in global affairs and made their understanding of the world central to the message they presented to their followers, the nation, and the international community. In speeches, articles, columns, editorials, lectures, petitions, conferences, essays, books, letters, and travel accounts, the race reformers focused intently on overseas affairs and America's place in the world, and they made such matters a key part of their crusade. They did so to energize their supporters and to clarify, legitimize, and strengthen the aims of their struggle to policymakers and the American people. The reformers were convinced, in short, that developments abroad could provide traction for the cause.
This keen interest in the world points to an important theme I shall develop in this study, namely, that numerous mainstream race reform leaders were internationalists, who shared some of the ideas and values embraced by American internationalists throughout the twentieth century. One historian has written that the internationalists were nearly all old-stock Protestants descended from English forebears, but I would suggest that the race reformers' worldview was not dissimilar from that of this traditional group, although the race leaders' understanding of the world was very much their own.
Scholars have found it difficult to agree on the precise meaning of the term internationalism, and have established a variety of taxonomies in order to elucidate the concept. Still, a belief in the practicability of cooperation (economic, social, or cultural) among the world's peoples and a belief in the possibility of constructing a more pacific world order that could render war less likely or even obsolete have been among the core ideas embraced by nearly all internationalists. Moreover, most internationalists have believed that some type of international organization, for example, the League of Nations or the United Nations, was needed to help create and sustain global comity. Another tenet of the internationalist creed has suggested that the United States has a special mission in the world, the achievement of which would enable humanity to construct a more cooperative global order. In important respects, the race reform leaders subscribed to such ideas and supported the development of organizations like the League and the United Nations, believing transnational cooperation and the abolition of war were desirable and attainable goals. And surprisingly, many race reformers were persuaded that the United States had a unique role to play in the world, although as we shall see, for the reformers this was a more complicated matter.
If there were points of convergence between the race reformers' understanding of the world and that of the traditional internationalists, there were also significant areas of difference. The race reformers' worldview, which I have chosen to call color-conscious internationalism, combined the familiar with the novel and represented a bold departure from traditional internationalist thought. One objective of this study is to delineate the course of color-conscious internationalism, for to understand the history of the civil rights campaign, it is necessary to consider how the movement's leading figures viewed twentieth-century global affairs and America's changing role in the world.
Color-conscious internationalism comprised three key characteristics. First was the conviction that transnational institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations had a critical role to play not just in world politics but also in the domestic realm. In the international sphere, such institutions would be instrumental in helping to dismantle imperial rule in the developing world and, by contributing to the cause of self-determination, would foster a more just global order. In the domestic sphere, the reformers believed the League and the United Nations could help abolish institutionalized racial oppression in two ways: first, by compelling the United States to apply the provisions of the League or United Nations charters to American domestic society; and second, by serving as useful arenas in which race reform leaders could marshal world public opinion against America's discriminatory racial practices. The race reformers were hopeful that such organizations could contribute to the reconfiguration of race relations in the United States, which would help to create a more just society.
A second aspect of color-conscious internationalism concerned the notion that America-despite its domestic shortcomings-had a critical role to play in helping to shape world politics, the ultimate outcome of which would be a global order that was less oppressive and more democratic. But for the United States to assume the mantle of world leadership and to help humanity reach this exalted plane, the race reformers insisted that America had to reform its domestic social relations, race relations, especially. To become the world's reformer, the United States had first to democratize its domestic social and political institutions-to harmonize them with its self-proclaimed global aspirations-for it was not possible, to use the famous phrase, "to make the world safe for democracy" as long as America itself was not genuinely democratic. The race reformers thus identified a tension between America's willingness to assume a world leadership role, a posture many supported, and the persistence of domestic racial oppression. This tension would inform the way many civil rights leaders viewed the activities of the United States on the international stage throughout the twentieth century.
A third component of color-conscious internationalism flowed from the idea, embraced by most traditional internationalists, that it was desirable to work toward cooperation among peoples and that such cooperation could transcend national boundaries. Sondra Herman has written of the internationalist impulse to help increase "the sense of human unity," while Warren Kuehl writes of the internationalists' desire to "heighten an awareness" of such unity. This belief in the possibility of worldwide cooperation and transnational unity lay at the very heart of color-conscious internationalism, though for the race reformers the notion was not quite so expansive. The unity in which the race reformers believed was the unity of the downtrodden. Oppressed peoples of color throughout the world-whether in Africa, Asia, or the United States-were bound together by the reality of their subordinate status, interconnected by a shared lack of autonomy. For race reform leaders, the domestic campaign was inseparable from the worldwide struggle against racial oppression, and it was in this way that the internationalist belief in the unity of humanity and in transnational cooperation achieved meaning. Throughout the twentieth century, civil rights leaders identified themselves as part of a global reform project, and as part of this "imagined community" of reformers they wedded their domestic aims to the aspirations of those working to liberate peoples of color around the world. For the men and women animated by the idea of color-conscious internationalism, freedom was indivisible.
Excerpted from How Far the Promised Land? World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam by Jonathan Rosenberg Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
James Goodman, Rutgers University, author of "Stories of Scottsboro"
Mary L. Dudziak, University of Southern California, author of "Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy"
Frank Costigliola, University of Connecticut, author of "France and the United States: The Cold War Alliance since World War II"
Meet the Author
Jonathan Rosenberg is Assistant Professor of History at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
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