The Russian Conspiracy To Help The Civil Rights Movement

On this episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Ben Bowlin, Noel Brown, and Matt Frederick talk about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and how the Soviet Union inadvertently helped push the United States toward a more just society. The civil rights movement was active between 1954 and 1968, and coincided with the beginning of the Cold War. These two huge political upheavals ended up working in concert to fundamentally change American society. Our hypocrisy towards Black Americans served as a weak spot that Russia worked very hard to exploit, starting in the 1930s, because they saw our racial disparities as a ripe ground to sow the seeds of revolution.

In 1957, the governor of Arkansas deployed the National Guard to keep nine Black teenagers from integrating the Central High School in Little Rock. Though the law was on the students’ side, the state government worked actively to block them from exercising their rights. At the same time, the U.S. was on the global stage, selling the idea of democracy to countries who might otherwise be attracted to communism. So Russia saw an opportunity to start an active propaganda campaign against the U.S. with discrimination as the star, running headlines like “Troops Advance On Children.” It was highly effective; when then-Vice President Richard Nixon toured Latin America, he was greeted with protestors shouting “Little Rock!” at him. Diplomats in foreign countries were increasingly battling hard questions about these incidents as well as they were trying to push a democratic ideal of freedom. Our hypocrisy was embarrassing us on the world stage, and capitulating to some of the civil rights movement’s demands began to be seen as a matter of national security. The international pressure that Russia helped create motivated the U.S. to push through the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. 

Ironically, Russia started their propaganda campaign to hurt the United States and ended up making it a better place. But our continuing racial inequality still provides a chink in our armor for Russia – the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency exploited it again in their misinformation campaign during the 2016 election. “If the goal is destabilization, you go with what works,” Ben says. And it works to talk about racial discrimination “because it is true.” Unlike in the 1960s, they now try to play both sides; in 2016 they posted anti-Democrat and anti-Republican propaganda equally, trying to erode the trust we have in our political institutions. Russia’s work is far from done, and as long as there is racial inequality in America, they’ll always have a weapon to wield against us. Hear more about this conspiracy on Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know.

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