You are on page 1of 7

Tyler Harlow

Professors Kris Whorton and Seth Epstein


ENGL 1150 and HIST 1120
November 22, 2016
The Cold War: A Spark the Civil Rights Movement Needed
Throughout the evolution of the world, many different groups have struggled for equality.
This struggle has been seen in both the wild kingdom and the human world. For humans, this tug
of war for equality has been one consisting of females fighting for equality to males, minorities
to equality of majorities, and, today, equality of all with little to no exceptions. The journey to
equality has occurred all over the earth, but the focus in this paper is the journey of minorities
(specifically of the black community) to be equal with majorities (specifically the white
community) in the United States. This venture to equality for blacks to whites in America is the
most notable struggle for rights in America, and, quite possibly, the world. History has aptly
named this movement the Civil Rights Movement. However, this movement for equality did not
just spring up overnight out of the kindness of peoples hearts; rather, the Civil Rights movement
needed a spark to begin. This spark was the Cold War. The Cold War (1947-1991) was a
nonviolent arms race which largely focused on the two superpowers of the world the United
States and the USSR. Though largely seen as mainly an arms race between the US and the
USSR, when one examines the Cold War in depth, it becomes quite clear that it provided the
spark for the Civil Rights Movement to begin. As a matter of fact, the Cold War had many
implications on American society, but one of the largest impacts it had was that it sparked the
Civil Rights Movement in America.

Harlow 2
As time passes, the Cold War is constantly seen as more than an arms race; the Cold War
truly was a battle to be better at everything. As previously stated, the Cold War was largely a
match between the United States and the USSR. As George Washington University notes, [t]he
Cold War was a decades-long struggle for global supremacy that pitted the capitalist United
States against the communist Soviet Union (gwu.edu). Because the United States and the USSR
were the two world superpowers during this time period, the two were fighting to promote their
own methods and beliefs. Sam Houston State University notes this battle of two systems in their
article Soviet Union 1945-1985. This article explains, The United States worked to contain
Soviet expansion in this period of international relations that has come to be known as the Cold
War (shsu.edu). As these two superpowers duked it out to become the supreme model for the
world, the Cold War became about more than building the best military. This transition to being
about more than arms is noted in The Kitchen Debate and Cold War Consumer Politics: A Brief
History with Documents. Shane Hamilton and Sarah Philips write:
The Kitchen Debate, centered on the politics and culture of mass consumption, revealed
that the Cold War was not just a geopolitical confrontation between two nuclear-armed
superpowers. It was also a battle for the hearts, the minds, and perhaps most
importantly the stomachs of citizens in the Cold War world. (1)
As the Cold War progressed, it became less about arms racing and more about becoming the role
model for the world in every aspect of government. The United States was seeking to contain the
USSRs communism, and the USSR was fighting to do the same to the United States capitalism.
To do this, both countries had to adapt every facet of their societies.
Though the Cold War quickly accelerated to increase competition between the United
States and the USSR across the board, the largest area the USSR targeted in America was

Harlow 3
American civil rights. In her book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American
Democracy, Mary Dudziak writes of a major case that led to the international attention on
American civil rights. On July 29th, 1957, Jimmy Wilson, an African American handyman, was
arrested for stealing $1.95 in change. Dudziak records, [a]fter he was sentenced to death in
Alabama for stealing less than two dollars in change, Wilsons case was thought to epitomize the
harsh consequences of American Racism (3). Dudziak goes on to explain that [h]eadlines
around the world decried this death sentence for the less than two dollars (4). Dudziak further
notes that Jimmy Wilsons case is one example of the international impact of American race
discrimination during the Cold War. Domestic civil rights crises would quickly become
international crises (6). Dudziak illustrates that the Jimmy Wilson case was one of the major
cases that put American civil rights in the worlds spotlights. After Wilson was sentenced to
death for stealing less than two dollars in change, international news outlets quickly latched onto
this case and put it at the forefront of international attention. The world, egged on by the USSR,
began to question the real freedom that American democracy presented. Dudziak writes that
[b]ecause the United States was the presumptive leader of the free world, racism in the nation
was a matter of international concern (3). As this story became international concern the main
question of American democracys freedom was [h]ow could American democracy be a beacon
during the Cold War, and a model for those struggling against Soviet oppression, if the United
States itself practiced brutal discrimination against minorities within its own borders? (Dudziak
3). The USSR quickly seized on these international concerns to use them as a tool to preach that
communism was the way to go in terms of governmental and societal method.
Because the USSR was quickly exploiting the worlds fears that American democracy
was racist, the United States had to answer. The targeting of its civil rights by the world and the

Harlow 4
USSR caused America to take notice of these rights and, in turn, resulted in the Civil Rights
Movement. The gaining of minority civil rights in America began, really, with President
Trumans administration. In 1947, the Truman administration released one of the first statements
addressing minority rights in America. Dudziak records this statement:
three reasons why civil rights abuses in the United States should be redressed: a moral
reason discrimination was morally wrong; an economic reason discrimination harmed
the economy; and an international reason discrimination damaged U.S. foreign relations
(80).
This shows some concern with civil rights in America before the international attention of the
Jimmy Wilson case, but only two major actions. Though most of the major action with civil
rights in the US did occur after the Jimmy Wilson case, President Truman did have one large
accomplishment in the area of civil rights. Dudziak states that in 1948, [o]ne of President
Trumans most important civil rights accomplishments was initiating desegregation of the armed
services (83). This desegregation of the armed forces was the most major accomplishment of
the Truman administration concerning civil rights. However, just six years later, under President
Eisenhower, an even more significant civil rights advancement occurred. In 1954, schools were
ordered to become desegregated by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Brown v
Board of Education case. Although this court order came in 1954, it was not until 1957, the same
year that the Jimmy Wilson case occurred, that the final wave of schools were desegregated.
Though two major advancements occurred before the Jimmy Wilson case of 1957 in
America, only one of those advancements was fully enforced before 1957 (this being the
desegregation of the armed forces). However, as this case began to take national spotlight, more
action began to be taken in advancing civil rights in the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr. took charge

Harlow 5
of what became to be known as the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1960s. The Civil
Rights Movement resulted in two of the largest bills passed and enforced to advance civil rights
in the U.S. In 1964, the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which:
Created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address race and sex
discrimination in employment and a Community Relations Service to help local
communities solve racial disputes; authorized federal intervention to ensure the
desegregation of schools, parks, swimming pools, and other public facilities; and
restricted the use of literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration.
(kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/)
This passage was a major leap forward in the advancement of civil rights and a huge answer
from America to any doubters of the freedom offered by American capitalism. Just four years
later in 1968, the American government passed the Fair Housing act of 1968 which, prohibited
discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion,
national origin and sex (history.com). The passage of these two bills came as a result of the
Civil Rights Movement in America, and the Civil Rights Movement began just years after the
Jimmy Wilson case became an international concern of the freedoms of American democracy.
The Cold War is often seen as a bad time in world and American history as a mere arms
race and drastic expanding of military. However, when one examines the Cold War, it becomes
obvious that it was not as bad as it seems; the Cold War came with its positives. One of these
positives was that the Cold War was, perhaps, the leading cause of the Civil Rights Movement in
the United States. When the Jimmy Wilson case seized international headlines in 1957, the
USSR used this case to point out what they believed to be racism in American democracy.
Because America was competing with the USSR to be the worlds role model, the U.S. had to

Harlow 6
answer. Prior to 1957, America saw the enforcement of desegregation of the armed forces under
President Truman and the passage of Brown v Board of Education which officially desegregated
schools. However, America did not see the final wave of enforcement of desegregation of
schools until 1957. After 1957, the U.S. experienced the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s
largely led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This movement resulted in the Civil Rights Act of
1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Therefore, it is easy to see, when one examines this time
period, the correlation between the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
Looking back to the 1960s, nearly fifty years later after the last major civil rights bill was passed,
one can see the major progression made for equality in America; however, when examining
current times, one still observes a somewhat divided America. America must continue to strive to
be better to never settle.

Harlow 7
Works Cited
Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy.
Princeton University Press, 2000.
Fair Housing Act of 1968. history.com, 9 Nov. 2016, http://www.history.com/topics/blackhistory/fair-housing-act
Hamilton, Shane, and Phillips, Sarah. The Kitchen Debate and Cold War Consumer Politics: A
Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2014.
Martin Luther King, Jr and the Global Freedom Struggle: Civil Rights Act of 1964.
kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/, 9 Nov. 2016,
http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_civil_rights_act_of_
1964.1.html
Soviet Union 1945-1985. www.shsu.edu, 9 Nov. 2016,
https://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Soviet2.html
Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: Cold War. www2.gwu.edu, 9 Nov. 2016,
www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/cold-war.cfm