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March on Washington had international impact

The August 1963 March on Washington brought thousands to the nation’s capital, but the District of Columbia was not the only place that civil rights supporters marched on Washington, says Emory law professor Mary Dudziak. American expatriates and citizens of other nations marched on Washington as well, taking petitions to U.S. diplomatic posts around the world.  

The March came not long after police abuse of civil rights protesters in Birmingham Alabama.  Terrible images from Birmingham had been “all over the nation's press, and they were also plastered all over the press around the world. This was in the middle of the Cold War," explains Dudziak, an expert on international affairs and American legal history.  

At a time when the United States was seen as the leader of the free world, these images were especially damaging, Dudziak says.  

"Countries around the world would say, 'America, first of all, don’t tell us how to run our own governments if you’re treating your own people this way,'" she explains. "But also [the reaction was] 'What is so great about democracy if within the world’s leading democracy people of color are treated like this?'"  

The global march on Washington showed broad worldwide support for the American civil rights movement, and helped press President John F. Kennedy to support civil rights reform.  

Dudziak says Kennedy’s advisors were concerned that the images and protests would aid the Soviet Union in their appeal to newly independent nations in Africa, and would make him appear weak on the international stage. ”The need to address the global reaction was among the reasons Kennedy’s aides urged him to take a stronger stand on Civil Rights reform."  

Dudziak is the author of "Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy."

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