Today we welcome a guest blog post from Nicholas Grant, author of Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945–1960, on the South African government’s reaction to the 1957 crisis over the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
Winning Our Freedoms Together examines how African Americans engaged with, supported, and were inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement. Bringing black activism into conversation with the foreign policy of both the U.S. and South African governments, this study questions the dominant perception that U.S.-centered anticommunism decimated black international activism. Instead, by tracing the considerable amount of time, money, and effort the state invested into responding to black international criticism, Grant outlines the extent to which the U.S. and South African governments were forced to reshape and occasionally reconsider their racial policies in the Cold War world.
Winning Our Freedoms Together will be out in November 2017 and is available for pre-order now.
Apartheid South Africa and the 1957 Little Rock Crisis
The world was watching when — 60 years ago this month — nine black honors students attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School in September 1957. The battle over segregation in Arkansas reverberated around the world. Circulating in ways that vividly underlined the failings of American democracy and the viciousness of Jim Crow.
Little Rock placed the U.S. government under intense international scrutiny, illustrating the extent to which race and the politics of the Cold War were intimately bound up with one another. Facing Soviet propaganda attacks that connected American capitalism with white supremacy – and eager not to alienate the leaders of newly independent nations in Asia and Africa – the Eisenhower administration eventually responded by deploying Federal troops to ensure the school’s integration.
As foreign powers lined up to condemn the violence at Little Rock, in South Africa, the apartheid government watched on nervously. The ruling National Party closely monitored the development of civil rights movement. Increasingly concerned that integration would raise uncomfortable questions about the ‘legitimacy’ of the apartheid system, South African officials responded to key racial flashpoints in the United States by sending a flurry of memos back and forth across the Atlantic.
The National Party remained defiant in the aftermath of Little Rock. Embracing both the outrage of Southern segregationists and the language of states’ rights, apartheid policymakers drew important lessons from the crisis. The reaction of the South African government to the battle over school desegregation in the United States illustrates how state racisms are produced and develop through exchange. Tracing this response shows how Apartheid and Jim Crow were not only comparable systems of racial control, but were also reinforced by white supremacist interactions that took place across national borders.
When commenting on Little Rock, National Party officials expressed clear support for the separation of the races in schools, noting that these debates spoke to their own policies on ‘Native’ education. Wentzel C. Du Plessis, South African ambassador to the U.S. at the time of crisis, was particularly concerned that white children in Arkansas would be denied an adequate education if desegregation was successful. He predicted that many high school seniors would find it impossible to go on to college, arguing that integrated schooling damaged white pupils and that they would “not be able to make up these deficiencies in their education.” Disregarding the educational development of African American students, Du Plessis insisted that “their education can be provided for quite easily” under the existing segregated system. Echoing the concerns of many conservatives in America, who predicted that white teachers would leave the public school system in droves, the ambassador concluded that the collapse of the Southern education system would inevitably generate “a new dimension to racial feeling and discord” in the United States.
The South African government’s dismay at the integration of Little Rock Central High School was part of a longer ideological affiliation with white supremacy in the American South. John Edward Holloway, South African Ambassador to the U.S. between 1954 and 1956, repeatedly expressed sympathy for southern segregationists following Brown v. Board of Education. The language Holloway used when reporting back to Pretoria occasionally evoked memories of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Predicting widespread “violence and disorder” if integration was thrust on southerners “bred” on generations of white power, Holloway noted that, “racial segregation in this region has withstood the pressure of the years, and the Yankee propaganda from the north, and the question of integration, which strikes at the heart of the Southern tradition, will inevitably lay bare passions which are not far below the surface.” Holloway’s reports demonstrate a deep understanding of America’s racial past, while deliberately evoking the call for states’ rights. Indeed, South African diplomats occasionally took on the role of honorary Confederates when commentating on American race relations. As Holloway stated in the immediate aftermath of the Brown decision: “It is an exaggeration to say, as some maintain, that secessionist feeling is stronger in some parts of the deep South than before the Civil War, but it is nevertheless quite clear that these states will resist school integration to the very last and with all the means at their disposal.”
The integration of Little Rock Central High School ultimately forced South Africa to reconsider its relationship with the United States during the early Cold War. Ambassador Du Plessis admitted as much when he commented that, “The virtue of their [the U.S. government’s] anti-colonial and anti-racial policy is perhaps enhanced by the fact that by legislation, or rather by Court Order, they are bringing about a stage of racial integration in the face of traditional and violent opposition within their own country.” Apartheid policymakers were worried that the development of the civil rights movement would further delegitimize apartheid in the eyes of the ‘Western powers’, effectively making South Africa a pariah state in the international political arena.
However, white American responses to Little Rock also provided the National Party with an important lesson when it came to defending itself against overseas criticism of its own racial policies. South African officials repeatedly questioned the legality of Eisenhower’s military intervention in Arkansas, while at the same time emphasizing, “the role of States Rights in the enforcement of Federal court injunctions.” As Du Plessis noted with apparent glee, “If the constitutional issue can be isolated from the race problem — and there is every indication that segregationists are assiduously maneuvering in that direction — the conclusion is inescapable that the esteem of the Presidency will be embarrassingly strained.”
Apartheid policymakers drew inspiration from the way in which American racists counteracted moral criticism by insisting that – at its heart – the Little Rock crisis was about the unnecessary imposition of Federal power. This assertion of the sanctity of states’ rights mirrored how the National Party would respond to international condemnation of apartheid. As Du Plessis later commented in an address to the Harvard Law School: “World opinion which has the power to criticize does not have the responsibility to govern. We do.” Partly inspired by the insistence of American segregationists that they be allowed to govern without outside interference, South Africa would continue to argue that foreign opposition to apartheid undermined their right to national self-governance long after 1957. Even as Little Rock struck a blow to Jim Crow segregation, intransigent white supremacists rallied – expressing support for and learning from one another across national boundaries.
Nicholas Grant is a lecturer in American studies at the University of East Anglia, and the author of Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945–1960. Follow him on Twitter for further updates.
 Mary L. Dudziak, “Brown as a Cold War Case,” The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (June 2004); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003).
 Wentzel C. Du Plessis to Secretary for External Affairs, “The Closing of the Schools,” 12 December 1958, South African National Archives, Pretoria. BTS, 1/33/10. Vol. 1 U.S.A. Racial Policy 1958-1959, 2.
 Ibid., 2, 4.
 J. E. Holloway to Secretary for External Affairs, “Racial Segregation in Public Schools in the United States”, 17 June 1955, South African National Archives, Pretoria. BTS, 1/33/13, vol. 2. Negro Problem in USA, 1953-1958, 4.
 J. E. Holloway to Secretary for External Affairs, 19 October 1954, South African National Archives, Pretoria. BTS, 1/33/13, vol. 2. Negro Problem in USA, 1953-1958, 3.
 W.C. Du Plessis, to Secretary for External Affairs, 3 October 1957, SANA. SAB – BTS, 1/33/13, vol. 2. Negro Problem in USA, 1953-1958, 4.
 Ibid., 3.
 “Du Plessis Maintains Segregation Only Solution for South Africans,” Harvard Crimson, December 6, 1958.