Abstract

A growing body of historical scholarship has demonstrated that the Cold War had a profound impact on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The rise of newly independent nations in African and Asia, coupled with Americas quest to lead the ““free world”” against the Soviet Union, made American racism an international liability and created conditions that fostered civil rights reforms at home. Yet the Cold War's influence on the movement is largely absent at the nation's leading civil rights museums. This article surveys the ways in which four civil rights museums present the relationship between the movement and the Cold War, and suggests some reasons that museums have yet to internationalize their history of the movement. The Cold War interpretation shows how foreign policy concerns and elite whites' self-interest both helped generate and limit civil rights reforms. This interpretation, however, stands at odd with the celebratory narrative of the movement as a triumph of democratic ideals that these museums present.

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