Cross-posted from SCOTUS Blog, where this essay is part of its special Black History Month coverage:
In May 1954, Brown v. Board of Education made headlines, not only in American newspapers, but also around the world. “At Last! Whites and Blacks in the United States on the same school benches,” was the headline in Afrique Nouvelle, a newspaper in French West Africa (now Senegal). In India, the Hindustan Times noted that “American democracy stands to gain in strength and prestige from the unanimous ruling” since school segregation “has been a long-standing blot on American life and civilization.” For the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, Brown would “go a long way toward dissipating the validity of the Communist contention that Western concepts of democracy are hypocritical.”
The global reaction to Brown was also noted in American news coverage. The decision would “stun and silence America’s Communist traducers behind the Iron Curtain,” argued the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, for it would “effectively impress upon millions of colored people in Asia and Africa the fact that idealism and social morality can and do prevail in the Unites States, regardless of race, creed or color.”
Justice Stephen Breyer referred to the global attention given to Brown in his dissent in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 in 2007. He emphasized the historic importance of Brown, noting that the case “deeply affected not only Americans, but the world.” But the global significance of the case goes beyond Justice Breyer’s point that Brown enabled others to find a positive model in American racial justice. Brown is one example of the way American law plays a role in U.S. public diplomacy. When major Supreme Court cases are covered in the world press, they inform the understanding of peoples of other nations about the nature of American democracy.
While Brown was held up as an achievement, it came at a troublesome time for the American image abroad. American civil rights failings had long been a staple in the international press. Editorials around the world lambasted racial segregation in public schools and elsewhere, and instances of racial violence, including lynching, caused international outrage. All nations had their own injustices, so why was it that peoples around the world focused their ire on American racism?
It was the Cold War, which American leaders described as a battle between a nation that upheld rights, and the Soviet Union which repressed them. With nations in Africa and Asia poised to gain independence, the United States hoped the new countries would follow its lead. The Cold War balance of power itself seemed to turn on the faith of other nations in the benefits of democracy. Yet in the world’s leading democracy, citizens were segregated by race, and African Americans were sometimes brutalized for attempting to exercise basic rights.
The Soviet Union took advantage of this American weakness. American racism was a principal Soviet propaganda theme by the late 1940s. This propaganda was overblown, yet it had an impact because the long history of oppression of African Americans was well known around the world. Many believed that American world leadership, and world peace itself hinged on the nation solving its racial problems. As Gunnar Myrdal put it in 1944, “America, for its international prestige, power, and future security, needs to demonstrate to the world that American Negroes can be satisfactorily integrated into its democracy.”
Supreme Court Justices encountered international concern about American race discrimination in their overseas travels. When Justice William O. Douglas traveled to India in 1950, the first question he was asked was, “Why does America tolerate the lynching of Negroes?” Douglas later wrote that he had learned from his travels that “the attitude of the United States toward its colored minorities is a powerful factor in our relations with India.” Chief Justice Earl Warren echoed Douglas’s concerns in a 1954 speech to the American Bar Association. “Our American system like all others is on trial both at home and abroad,” he said. “The way it works, the manner in which it solves the problems of our day; the extent to which we maintain the spirit of our constitution with its Bill of Rights, 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.”
When Brown v. Board of Education was argued, the Justice Department made sure the Court was aware that the case before it had important national security consequences. In an Amicus Curiae brief, the Justice Department argued that segregation had “an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.” The brief quoted extensively from Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who argued that the damage to U.S. foreign relations from race discrimination was growing. School segregation had been “singled out for hostile foreign comment.” The impact of such practices on American international prestige “jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.”
When Brown was decided, the ruling gave American diplomats ammunition they had been seeking. The U.S. government quickly helped get the word out about Brown. The case was the top story on the Voice of America, where it was accompanied by a commentary explaining that the decision came about "by law under democratic processes rather than by mob rule or dictatorial fiat." The State Department informed American Embassy staffs around the world about how to manage the news. “You may imagine what good use we are making of the decision here in India,” wrote U.S. ambassador to India George V. Allen. The United States Information Service circulated a press release in that country calling Brown “another milestone in the American Negro’s steady progress toward full equality as a citizen.” The international impact of Brown was followed closely by civil rights organizations. If civil rights advances aided U.S. foreign relations, then the NAACP could argue that its effort to change the nation’s racial practices were not un-American, but instead strengthened the country.
When American judges and legal scholars discuss the impact of American law around the world, they tend to focus on the question of whether other nations draw from the American model. In the story of Brown’s global impact, we can see another role of American law in the world. Rather than exporting American ideas to other nations for their benefit, the United States sought to spread the story of Brown to repair the American image, and to safeguard U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War. We may think that sending our legal ideas overseas helps others, but in this example American justice aided American diplomacy.
Sources for quotes in this essay and more of this history can be found in Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), and Mary L. Dudziak, “Brown as a Cold War Case,” 91 Journal of American History 32 (2004).