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Reviewed by:
  • Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945–1988
  • Jonathan Rosenberg
Brenda Gayle Plummer , ed., Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945–1988. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 259 pp.

According to a British activist who attended a massive peace rally held in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday in 1958, the American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin delivered an especially powerful speech that linked the "struggle against weapons of mass destruction with the struggle of blacks for their basic rights in America" (p. 1). The presence of one of America's preeminent civil rights figures at this gathering of European peace activists at the height of the Cold War highlights the link between those toiling to improve the state of race relations in the United States and those committed to the cause of world peace and disarmament. More broadly, Rustin's participation in the London rally points to the connection between the American race question and post–1945 international affairs. But as Brenda Gayle Plummer points out in her luminous introduction to Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945–1988, this was hardly a novel phenomenon, for black America's interest in the wider world had emerged as early as the nineteenth century when reformers like Frederick Douglass spoke to people outside the United States about the abolition of slavery.

Although a small number of historians had begun to consider the relationship between black America and international affairs, the publication in 1996 of Plummer's landmark study, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960, signaled the start of a flurry of scholarly activity on the intersection between race and global developments. Window on Freedom includes contributions by some of the leading scholars in this burgeoning field (Plummer, Paul Gordon Lauren, Gerald Horne, Carol Anderson, Cary Fraser, Thomas Noer, Michael Krenn, and Mary Dudziak), along with offerings by some who will surely be heard from again in the days ahead. The publication of this volume suggests that the subject continues to generate research that is both stimulating and important for those interested in U.S. foreign relations history as well as the history of the civil rights movement.

What is striking about these ten essays and, more generally, about the evolving field is the myriad approaches scholars have embraced as they explore the linkages between domestic race relations and global developments. The contributors pose a variety of incisive questions and examine, among other topics, presidential politics, the inner workings of the Department of State, the views of American segregationists, the challenges faced by African diplomats living in Washington, and the contrasting views of traditional civil rights leaders and African-American Communists. As Gerald Horne notes in his chapter, "Race from Power," it is not possible "to understand U.S. foreign policy during the past century without contemplating the [End Page 139] race and racism, or understand the ebb and flow of [U.S.] race and racism . . . without contemplating the global context" (p. 45). Each essay in this volume cogently demonstrates the validity of Horne's point.

In considering the nexus between race relations and world affairs, Thomas Noer focuses mainly on the domestic sphere in an insightful analysis of the foreign policy perspective of Southern segregationists. According to Noer, white Southerners like George Wallace, who wanted to buttress their unyielding commitment to segregation, emphasized foreign policy questions in order to "justify and to gain support" (p. 141) for the maintenance of Jim Crow laws in the South. Repeatedly, Southern segregationists argued that those seeking to dismantle institutionalized racial oppression in the region were acting in league with the Communists. No matter how specious the case—and there was scant evidence to support such assertions—Cold War anti-Communism became a pillar on which segregationist rhetoric rested. The aim of such rhetoric was, quite simply, to preserve a system that denied blacks their citizenship rights. Moreover, such language was articulated in an era in which the United States portrayed itself as the repository of liberal democratic values. Apparently, it was acceptable to clamor for freedom overseas so long as tyranny at home remained intact.