1963 was an eventful year for the Civil Rights Movement: MLK wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail in April, in the city that erupted in riots a few weeks later following the integration of the University of Alabama. Medgar Evers’ murder occurred in June, the same month President Kennedy delivered a televised speech calling for civil rights reform. King delivered the I Have a Dream speech during the March on Washington in August. And in September, Birmingham erupted in riots again after the deaths of four young girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
It’s also the year the state of Maryland passed a bill prohibiting discrimination in public services. Living in Maryland in 2012, in the most affluent predominantly African-American county in the United States, it’s difficult to imagine that less than a decade before I was born, African-Americans in this very county, then much more homogeneously white, were unable to get a haircut at the downtown barbershop or eat at roadside restaurants.
Maryland’s bill wasn’t all that different from other similar ones – except for the involvement of the United States Office of Special Protocol Services, a division of the State Department charged with solving the problems faced by non-white diplomats as a result of systematic race discrimination in the US. The Office got involved in something that on the surface looked like an internal State of Maryland matter because foreign diplomats, particularly African diplomats, driving US Highway 40 between the United Nations in New York and their embassies in DC or the US Federal Government faced discrimination which violated their legitimate expectations as diplomats and generated terrible press in their home countries. By 1963, the State Department saw race discrimination as a threat to their global diplomatic agenda and a liability in positioning American-style democracy as the moral counterweight to Soviet communism.
The Soviets viewed it as an American weakness as well. State radio in the USSR devoted extensive propaganda output to the tumult of the Civil Rights movement. During the Birmingham riots, the USIA reported that the Soviets dedicated 1/5 of their total broadcast time to coverage of events in Alabama. They also continued to use race against the US in narrative propaganda; 1963 marked Soyuzmultfilm’s release of the animated Mister Twister, based on the much-loved poem by Samuel Marshak that tells the story of an American business man who is overwhelmed, angered, and eventually transformed by his experience in a racially integrated society during a visit to Leningrad.
Marshak was an exceptional translator of English-language literature and wrote children’s books in part because they allowed him to avoid the ideological demands and problematic realities of Soviet realpolitik in favor of less ambiguous moral terrain. For reasons I don’t know, Marshak was designated an Enemy of the State during his tenure as head of the Children’s Section of the State Publishing house; apocrypha has it that he escaped the purges only because Stalin himself was so fond of Mister Twister’s story. Doris Lessing wrote about Marshak’s dilemma in her autobiography:
The nicest result of the visit to the Soviet Union was that I became a friend of Samuel Marshak, one of the prominent Soviet writers, a winner of the Stalin Prize for Literature. He was a poet, translated Burns and Shakespeare, wrote children’s stories. At that time writers unable to write what they wanted, because of the persecutions of serious literature, chose to do translating work: this is why the standard of Russian translation was so high…I do not see how any writer could have a worse fate than Samuel Marshak’s. To be a peasant boy with genius – or even talent – at that time was to be seen as the inheritor of a glorious future. To be Gorky’s protégé was to be accepted by the most famous writer in Russia. Gorky steadily fought Lenin over the inhumanity of his policies, procuring the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and then he fought Stalin too: it would have been easy for Marshak to feel allied with the good side of the Revolution, because it was then still possible to think there was one. Slowly he was absorbed into the structure of oppression, but hardly knew it was happening. By the time he knew he was trapped, it was too late. Easy to say, for people who have never lived with the experience of political terror, ‘He should have opted out.” How? He would have been sent to die in the Gulag, like dozens of other writers. ‘I never wrote what I should have written,’ he said.
Although the film of Mister Twister was made in 1963, the poem was written thirty years earlier, in 1933. That same year, one of the earliest uses of moralistic anti-racist ideology in anti-imperialist propaganda, “Black and White”, gave an antebellum flavor to its documentation of Jim Crow racism. The film was directed by perhaps the most important Soviet animator, Ivan Ivanov-Vano, who collaborated with Shostakovich and Stravinsky and who taught at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography from 1939 until his death in 1987.
Ivanov-Vano’s film trafficks in the iconography of racism, the caricatures of Picaninny and Brute, and yet manages to convey great pathos, much more than is generally associated with caricatured representations. There is no comedy here; only the violence of those representations, removed from the historical context that created them and stripped bare of all ambivalence. For Western viewers today, the insistence of the representation’s moral starkness undermines their conventional signification and allows the aesthetic merits of the film to come to the foreground. For Soviet viewers in the 1930s, that moral starkness played directly into the hands of a good/evil propagandistic ideology that obscured as much as it revealed. Although the ending of Black and White is more didactically Communist than Mister Twister, that doubling suggests that the same tension between realpolitik and the morality of Marxist ideology likely informed the creation of this work. Perhaps it inspired Marshak’s poem.
Soviet propaganda targeting American racism was not limited to animation — there were live action movies such as the 1936 film The Circus, about an interracial couple fleeing prejudice, and a great deal of non-fiction and journalistic propaganda as well. The linking of racism with imperialism was immensely effective among non-white groups worldwide, particularly in African nations. At least as early as the Truman administration, US leaders saw policy positions in support of civil rights as a necessary component of efforts to contain the spread of communism. In 1962, the United States Information Agency hired the documentarian George Stevens, Jr. to head its motion picture operations. Stevens hired filmmakers such as Charles Guggenheim, Leo Seltzer and James Blue to create films for the USIA, intended to counterbalance the skilled and artistically powerful Soviet propaganda machine. In 1963-4, Blue directed a behind-the-scenes documentary about the March on Washington, capturing the groundswell of enthusiasm and conviction that animated the event.
The film, which was unavailable for viewing in the United States until 1990, unsurprisingly generated high-level controversy at the time of its release. Although intended to depict the Civil Rights movement as an exemplar of the positive functioning of democracy and the power of the first amendment rights to speech and assembly, diplomats within the USIA worried that it showed too much of the fomenting dissent and actually supported the Communists’ message. A number of Congresspeople objected to the romanticization of the protest (as well as to the depiction of interracial mixing). Eventually an introduction was added to make explicit the film’s message that peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government for redress are the mechanisms by which democracy expands freedom. Although emphasizing the message in some ways diminishes the impact resulting from James Blue’s more subtle presentation and makes the film more overtly propagandistic, there is another sense in which it adds a layer to the message: the director of the USIA, Carl Rowan, who presents the introduction, was one of the first African-American officers in the US Navy and was the very first African-American to serve on the National Security Council.
I have mixed feelings about the vaguely Socialist Realist aesthetic of the new Martin Luther King memorial downtown – colossal statues of famous men are broadly associated in my mind with oppressed people tearing those statues down. But I’m going to begin thinking of it as signifying the role that Cold War geopolitics played in bringing about at least one vitally important success of the Civil Rights era. In the same year that James Blue’s film was released to the world, the American Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. There were many people in the American government who supported that legislation because it was the right thing to do, but odds are there were others who supported it for pragmatic reasons of national interest. Thank God that the needs of our foreign policy aligned so well at that critical moment with the needs of our citizens at home.
Happy Belated Birthday, Dr King.
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
–Langston Hughes, “Democracy”