Teaching the Article

“‘Worth a Lot of Negro Votes’” offers a window onto a world undergoing enormous changes as a North/South world system defined by European colonial empires was challenged and overturned amid an East/West Cold War struggle. When engaging this world, we often explore one theme (anticolonialism) or the other (the Cold War), but less often both together—and even less often the interplay of those struggles on the domestic front in the United States.

The exercises present ways to push the boundaries of the article into realms that students might consider as they engage the article’s topic.

The first exercise, “Race and the Cold War,” focuses on U.S. race relations as an international issue in the early Cold War. One of the many ways to explore the issue is through the pages of the black press. Since the establishment of Freedom’s Journal in 1827, the black press has played a vibrant role in the life of black Americans, and its heyday was in the mid-twentieth century. Not surprisingly, in the 1950s black newspapers took strong editorial stands against discrimination and segregation at a time when much of America chose to look the other way. These writers understood and used the language and dynamics of anticommunism and the Cold War, much as in today’s world the language of antiterrorism and national security might be used.

The documents also reveal that while the government sought to create a positive image of U.S. race relations, there was also a pervasive sense that the situation was being “exploited” by those who threatened U.S. interests, particularly the Soviet Union. Students might consider how the image of the United States is subject to contest, since there are conflicting views within the nation as well as beyond its borders.

The second exercise, “The United States and Colonialism in Africa,” offers issues for a collective classroom discussion, or for different sides of a classroom debate. U.S. policy makers fought over how to handle decolonization in Africa, and even stalwart liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt worried about independence coming too rapidly. Such concerns mirrored those in the United States about whether the civil rights movement was pushing too hard, too fast—even as Thurgood Marshall and others pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation (and the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution) had been around for close to one hundred years.

In 1960 no one thought of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as the major issue it would become. Events such as the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in that same year and the chaos in the newly independent Congo seemed to indicate that Africa might be a main arena in global affairs. Of course, the Vietnam War intervened, and Africa receded from Washington’s focus.

For some students, the unvarnished discussion about Africans in the 432nd National Security Council meeting will be something to wrestle with. How, one might ask, can we expect the men who voice such disparaging views of Africans to give wholehearted support to independence and majority rule for the nations of Africa? And bringing it closer to home, can we reasonably believe that they could dissociate their views of Africans from their views of African Americans?

The documents in the third exercise, “African Americans and Africa,” provide windows onto the vibrant transnational relationship at the time of the 1960 presidential campaign. One might think of that relationship in the context of diasporic peoples and their connections to home countries or regions. At the same time, African Americans often felt less a particularized connection to, say, a village or town or county than one to a more broadly imagined Africa. This meant that black Americans responded to events across Africa as a whole and perceived their significance in broad terms.

The fourth exercise, “Hearts, Minds, and Student Exchanges,” offers documents from 1959–1960 but asks students to think beyond those years. How much one should tie the history being taught to the contemporary is always a question, but this unit offers the possibility of engaging the always-current question of how the United States as a global actor interacts with the world.

One way to do so is by noting that when the Cold War ended, many believed there might be a “peace dividend,” that fewer dollars would be needed for defense and national security. Yet since the events of September 11, 2001, the budget for national security has grown dramatically, much more than the budget for such soft power efforts as cultural programs, student and teacher exchanges, and other person-to-person contacts. In the relatively strong economic times of the 1950s, there were perceived limits to how much military spending the United States could afford; with the economic meltdown of 2008, that perception may return. Questions about how the United States projects itself were debated in the 1950s and 1960s and certainly remain relevant today.

The final exercise, “Politics of Race,” broadens the scope to ask students to consider the long history of the role and use of race in presidential politics. Race and politics form an enormous topic. Yet many students seem to limit the historic role of race in politics to specific times and issues: the coming of the Civil War, the disfranchisement of black voters, the struggles over civil rights. This exercise uses an 1802 editorial by James Callender to illustrate the early use of race, but the emphasis is on its political uses since World War II. Race has been used as a tool to undermine support for an opponent and as a way to identify an important pool of voters to whom candidates need to appeal.

Examining the subtle (and at times not so subtle) language of race will make students more aware of how the issue has played out in contemporary contexts. There are a variety of ways instructors could tie the unit to the 2008 campaign. One way is to ask: Why has Barack Obama consistently emphasized his maternal family and rarely his paternal side?

The website links provided allow students to explore the role of race in the campaign. Obama's speech in Philadelphia, given amidst the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, may prove to be the single most enduring speech of the campaign, and allows students to interrogate Obama's wrestling with race and politics. The link to National Public Radio provides an audio clip of voters in Pennsylvania discussing the language of the election and how they perceive its relationship to race.

These exercises should build on and relate to each other so that, for example, readers ask how views on colonialism in Africa might have informed views on race and the Cold War, and vice versa. The exercises offer the opportunity to look historically and specifically at the Cold War era or to use a wider lens and connect to current issues and concerns.