Civil Rights Hoax Gone Good
Baltimore’s most famous contribution to the Civil Rights Movement utilized well-intentioned deception and good timing. It was sparked by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s public complaint that restaurants along Maryland’s US Highways were an embarrassment because they discriminated against African diplomats traveling between the United Nations in New York and Washington. The context of JFK’s remarks requires a broader understanding of the times to fully appreciate what unfolded.
American leaders were living the Big Lie in the 1950s. Though African-Americans served in World War II and returned home to Jim Crow, our federal government lied to the world. It said that we were the beacon of democracy, fairness, and personal freedoms combined with a system of capitalism to pursue any activity within your god-given abilities. At every turn within and outside the United Nations, American political leaders portrayed Russia as the antithesis of personal liberty and opportunity. From 1950-1953, America fought a United Nations-backed war against North Korea to prevent the spread of Communism in South Korea, but also as a surrogate signal to Russia. African-Americans served again, this time in a war against the spread of communism. After the Korean War they returned to the same Apartheid state.
To America’s shame in the early 1950s, most European American leaders refused to address the major domestic issue, “Unfair and Unequal Civil Rights.” Many black leaders were fed up with the Big Lie. Victories led by Thurgood Marshall in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, though important, generated civil rights progress and government job access far too slowly.
Frustrated by the state of affairs for black folks, some expatriated to France, where they were warmly received and fairly treated. Others, such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, converted to communism, primarily because communist nations respected them as human beings with equal rights. There is also evidence that they knew external pressure was needed to advance American civil rights faster. There is no compelling evidence that DuBois or Robeson were against capitalism. But since they spoke throughout Europe, Russia and Africa, they were banned from America at times and shunned by mainstream media. African American media and leadership were pressured to disassociate from their “Communist Brothers.”
In parallel, Senator Joe McCarthy launched congressional hearings to investigate anyone with communist ties – significant or circumstantial. Such people were considered a threat to democracy and capitalism. Massive civil liberty violations ensued, most visibly in the Hollywood industry. The lives and liberties of many Americans were ruined before Congress finally put the clamps on McCarthy-ism. Though McCarthy was eventually defamed and left office, the McCarthy Era left a residue in America distrustful of all things communist.
In the 1950s Russia and America conducted nuclear bomb tests. Then in 1957, Russia launched the first successful space flight, Sputnik. The latter human achievement brought Russia international influence while lessening America’s diplomatic effectiveness. Sputnik circling the globe, including over America at will, caused the Pentagon to label Russian satellites as a national threat. The Cold War escalated and the space race was on.
In the Cold War, Russia and America competed for ideological suasion of newly freed and soon to be freed African, Latin American and Asian colonies. With Russian diplomats racking up frequent flyer miles in resource-rich Africa, plus Roberson and Du Bois touting communism as a governance option, a few new African nations chose communism. Closer to home in 1959, Castro chose communism as his governance option in Cuba. By 1961, you can bet JFK wasn’t the only one putting pressure on the governor to treat African diplomats fairly along Maryland state highways.
In reaction to higher forces, Maryland’s governor “persuaded” highway restaurants to serve African diplomats, but not African Americans. Afro-American Newspaper reporters George Collins, Herb Mangrum, and Rufus Wells seized the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy on 22 August 1961. Posed as African diplomats, they were permitted to dine at segregated restaurants along US Route 40 in greater Baltimore. A fourth reporter, I. Henry Phillips, was their photographer.
Imagine the brothers with African garments, affecting an accent and the anxious, but courteous service they received from waiters! One reporter thought a white colleague identified him, but the ruse somehow ran its course successfully. Their hoax, complete with photos, broke as a hot-selling Afro-American Newspaper exclusive and quickly escalated as a major human rights story worldwide. It became THE reference point for several United Nations members to publicly chide the USA for racist hypocrisy.
The national and international embarrassment caused Maryland to desegregate restaurants before the year ended and pressured shopping stores to desegregate in 1962. Baltimore’s distinguished record of civil rights achievements a key reason the NAACP selected the city for its headquarters.