Thursday, September 10, 2015

Digitized Primary Sources on Race Discrimination and Foreign Relations

Mary L. Dudziak

Over at The Text Message, a blog by archivists at the U.S. National Archives, archivist David Langbart has a couple of posts that will be of interest to civil rights, constitutional law and foreign relations scholars, as well as historians. The most recent is Foreign Diplomats and Domestic Discrimination, and it includes a digitized letter from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, January 31, 1961. The topic is race discrimination in Washington DC against foreign diplomats. Rusk writes in part:

The broader history that this fits into includes discrimination against diplomats from newly independent African countries in Maryland and other states. The problem was so embarrassing to the United States that the State Department created a special office just to handle it, and lobbied the State of Maryland to pass a civil rights law in order to help the country win the Cold War. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, was the ultimate answer to this kind of discrimination. The history of discrimination in interstate travel by African Americans is well known and was key to the passage of Title II. The foreign affairs problem was also thought to be so important that Dean Rusk was a lead witness for the Kennedy Administration during hearings on the original civil rights bill during the summer of 1963.

Another recent Langbart post is Foreign Policy Aspects of Integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The more extensive history of the relationship between domestic discrimination and U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War has, of course, long been accessible in books (e.g. here, here and here) and articles. Langbart’s posts with digitized primary sources will be particularly helpful in bringing this history into the classroom. They also help legal scholars to see examples of the kind of materials historians writing in this area have based their work on.

The posted documents are, of course, just isolated examples of a much wider array of sources to be found in the National Archives, presidential libraries, and other collections. It would be most helpful to have a dedicated webpage somewhere with a variety of digitized sources on this topic. Although the National Archives is working on digitizing their records, when it comes to research there is unlikely to ever be a substitute for going to the archives themselves, and sifting through the sources.

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