Prologue Magazine

Race Relations in the United States and American Cultural and Informational Programs in Ghana, 1957–1966

Winter 1999, Vol. 31, No. 4

By Kenneth W. Heger

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At the stroke of midnight, March 6, 1957, Kwame Nkrumah proclaims Ghana's independence. (NARA, 306-RNT-57-18116)

On March 6, 1957, American relations with Africa entered a new era when Ghana, the former British colony of Gold Coast, gained its independence. Ghana's independence heralded the dawn of a new political world, and over the next two years, nations sprang up across the continent. The significance of these events was not lost on American foreign policy makers. To show the importance the United States placed on its relations with the new country, the Eisenhower administration chose Vice President Richard Nixon to lead the American delegation to Ghana's independence celebrations. In August 1959 the U.S. Department of State signaled the growing significance of Africa when it elevated the Office of African Affairs to the rank of a bureau. To further build ties with Africa, President John Kennedy appointed diplomats with the rank of ambassador to each newly independent state early in his administration.1

During these years, the United States was not the only nation interested in Africa. The Soviet Union, and later the People's Republic of China, also sought influence there and the continent soon became another cold war battleground in the propaganda warfare between the East and the West.2 Both communist nations readily used virtually any weapon at their disposal to discredit the United States and quickly seized upon the position of black Americans as a major tool to weaken American influence on the continent.

Communist propaganda forced American policy makers to take swift and decisive actions to deal with foreign perceptions of race relations in the United States before those perceptions could adversely affect American relations with the new nations of Africa. The story of how the United States dealt with this issue in Ghana serves as an excellent example of the cultural and informational programs the United States developed to counteract communist activities on the continent and to maintain good relations with African nations.

The U.S. government was well aware that foreign perceptions of race relations in the United States had the potential to become a major diplomatic problem. In October 1957, after civil rights issues reached a boiling point in the desegregation of the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, the United States Information Agency (USIA) conducted a survey to determine how race relations affected America's image abroad. What the agency found was disturbing. Universally, foreigners had a negative view of the treatment of blacks in the United States, an opinion that held sway even in nations as friendly to the United States as Norway, West Germany, and the United Kingdom.3 A survey taken later the same year was even more worrisome. The poll-takers discovered that the incidents in Little Rock were not themselves the cause of this negative opinion. Although the study's authors felt that Little Rock may have hardened some opinions about the poor state of race relations in the United States, they interpreted the studies to indicate that those negative views had already been in place before the events in Arkansas.4 Other USIA studies conducted in the wake of racial incidents in Mississippi and Alabama confirmed these findings.5

Because the communist press readily used these events as a means of attacking the United States, it was partially responsible for these negative views. Communist periodicals pointed to race-based incidents in the United States as proof that American democracy was false and that the American people possessed a racist mentality. Moreover, Soviet and Chinese propagandists did not need to rely solely on communist editorials. In what must have been particularly embarrassing to American diplomats, communist news services made ample use of pictures, cartoons, and editorial comment from American papers to support their assertions about the sad state of black Americans.6

Vitriolic attacks by the communist press notwithstanding, the situation was not entirely bleak. Although the USIA studies made it clear that world opinion universally held a negative view of American race relations, the USIA discovered that this view did not automatically translate into hostility toward the United States. In fact, people throughout the world believed that the American federal government was doing a good job of combating racism and discrimination in the United States and felt that federal civil rights programs would eventually improve conditions for black Americans. Even respondents who held harsh views of the state of race relations in the United States usually had a high overall opinion of the United States and its foreign policy.7 A 1962 USIA research report described this situation neatly when it characterized racism in the United States as "the chief blemish on the image of the American people abroad."8

Even though USIA findings indicated that race relations in the United States did not at the present pose a major problem for the nation overseas, American foreign policy makers were determined to face the issue head-on to ensure that it did not become an impediment to American diplomacy and to soften the impact of communist propaganda. As a result, it became an integral part of American cultural foreign policy to combat negative views of American race relations abroad, and as early as 1961 the USIA took concrete, formal steps to address the issue. In July of that year the USIA released Special Report 41, "IRI Background Facts: The Negro American." The report's introduction made it clear that the USIA realized that racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States had a profound effect on America's image abroad, a fact that complicated American relations with the new nations of Africa and Asia. Although American embassies and consulates had access to books and other publications pertaining to the status of black Americans, the USIA felt there was a pressing need for American personnel overseas to have information at their fingertips to be able to answer questions that the literate elite in other nations might have. It is important to note that Special Report 41 was not an attempt to discount claims of racism in the United States. American informational personnel freely admitted that segregation, inequality, and race-based violence existed. In Special Report 41, the USIA attempted to provide information stressing positive events in the history of African Americans since the Civil War. By focusing on the achievements black Americans had made in the areas of education, politics, and economics, the USIA hoped to illustrate that, although things might be bad for black Americans at the moment, conditions had been improving slowly for some time and were continuing to improve. Special Report 41 became the first in a series of reports that treated many of these topics in a more detailed fashion.9

While ready access to facts and figures concerning progress made by black Americans was important, it alone could not provide the support American personnel needed to combat the effects of racism on foreign perceptions of the United States. Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, American information officers overseas came to rely on more visual techniques to wage this battle, techniques that could reach a much wider audience than special reports. Ultimately, USIA developed a strategy that incorporated exhibits, as well as lectures and performances by visiting African Americans.

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Vice President and Mrs. Nixon, pictured here with Ghana's finance minister, K. A. Gbedeman, led the U.S. delegation at the Ghana independence celebrations in 1957. (NARA, 306-RNT-12-16)

As the first sub-Saharan colony to gain independence, Ghana offered the United States the earliest opportunity to develop such informational programs. From the outset, however, the Department of State and the USIA faced numerous obstacles. The first came in the person of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's leader from independence until the Ghanaian military overthrew him in a 1966 coup. Initially, relations between the United States and Ghana were warm. Nkrumah admired President Kennedy's aggressive civil rights campaign as well as the President's Africa policy. Increasingly, however, Nkrumah began to espouse a brand of "African socialism" that caused a gulf to open between the two states. In August 1963 the Ghanaian government placed limitations on foreign cultural and informational activities in Ghana. It restricted the sale of foreign books, limited the ability of foreign-run libraries to loan books, and banned diplomatic missions from establishing cultural centers in the country. Since the United States insisted that USIA activities and the USIA library were integral parts of the American embassy, those facilities were able to continue operation, but not without constant criticism from some elements in the Ghanaian government and press.10

After Kennedy's assassination, the situation deteriorated still further. Despite Lyndon Johnson's firm stand on improving civil rights in the United States, Nkrumah felt that the new President's position on Africa was not as friendly as Kennedy's. Difficulties between the two nations developed rapidly. On February 4, 1964, propaganda vans from Nkrumah's Convention People's Party toured the streets of Accra, the capital city, calling on Ghanaians to march on the American embassy to protest what it called American rumor-mongering and attacks on the government. Later that day, the party organized a protest rally in front of the embassy. At the same time, the Ghanaian government expelled four American professors from their posts at the University of Ghana on the grounds that the academics were indulging in subversive activities. Nkrumah refused to see the American ambassador about the demonstration or the expulsions.11

Radical elements among the Ghanaian press formed the other major hurdle. Throughout the Nkrumah years, it was common for Ghana's press to contain anti-American editorials often focusing on racism in the United States and accusing American foreign policy of being neocolonialistic, a state of affairs that existed even during the relatively congenial Kennedy years. In 1958 several papers ran articles on the Jimmy Wilson case in Alabama.12 The Ghana Evening News used almost a full page to reprint an article from London's Sunday Observer entitled "Death for 14 Shilling Theft." In 1962 the Ashanti Pioneer asserted that racial incidents in Mississippi, especially those concerning desegregation of the university, proved a daily disgrace to the United States and to all of humanity. In fall 1964, editorials in the official Ghanaian Times often alluded to rampant racism and fascism in the United States and characterized the presidential election as the "race for the leadership of white America." Early the next year, press criticism increased. The Ghanaian Times ran editorials accusing the United States of immorality and claimed that as American industry continued to automate, black Americans would be thrown out of work. That paper and the Ghana Evening News pointed to racial violence and the assassination of Malcolm X as proof that the position of African Americans was intolerable. These attacks were often so shrill that they drove American diplomats in the country to lodge formal protests with the government.13

None of this induced American policy makers to give up on Ghana. On the contrary, it prodded them to examine the views of the Ghanaian populace to determine the mood in the country at large. They found that, despite the growing gulf between the two governments and attacks by the official press, the Ghanaian population was by no means anti-American. For example, the Ghanaian response to the 1962 USIA filmstrip Toward Equal Opportunity was encouraging. USIA personnel observed that Ghanaians who viewed the filmstrip looked favorably upon the progress that black Americans seemed to be making. Furthermore, a 1963 USIA study of African students in the United States found Ghanaian students to be moderately to favorably inclined toward the United States. The same study also determined that although approximately 80 percent of the African students in American had a poor picture of the position of blacks in the United States, 70 percent of them thought the picture was improving. These findings led American policy makers in Ghana to conclude that a small circle within the government and the press viewed the United States with suspicion, if not hostility, but that the general population did not share that opinion. USIA personnel believed that a campaign designed to inform Ghanaian students, teachers, civil servants, and businessmen about the progress that African Americans had made and were making in the United States could improve the image of the United States in Ghana and defuse the attacks by the radical press.14 The result was the development of a program of exhibits, films, radio broadcasts, and support for visiting African Americans designed to illustrate the positive aspects of the life of black Americans.

Perhaps the easiest means of reaching Ghanaians was through the use of exhibits. The USIA library in Accra had eight large windows perfectly designed for such purposes. As early as 1957, USIA staff used photographs supplied from Washington to produce a picture exhibit entitled "Africans in the United States" and displayed it in this window space. The staff expanded upon the exhibit by displaying additional photographs on this subject inside the library.15

By cultivating good relationships with local Ghanaian merchants and community leaders, USIA personnel were able to place exhibits in other locations, thereby increasing Ghanaian exposure to them. For example, the 1961 exhibit "Progress of the Negro in America" was on display at the UTC, one of Accra's largest department stores. The 1963 exhibit "President Kennedy Calls for Equal Rights for U.S. Negro Citizens" could be seen in the central libraries of Accra and Kumasi; the municipal libraries of Sekondi, Cape Coast, Koforidua, Ito, and Tamle; the YMCA center in Accra; the Boy Scout and Girl Scout centers in Accra; as well as the USIA library.16

The exhibits proved to be a useful tool in conveying the USIA's message, and local American officials estimated that thousands of Ghanaians viewed them. Exhibits concerning the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King were particularly popular. 1962's "The New American Negro" received approximately four thousand visits. The following year, two more exhibits relating to King, "Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize" and "Man of the Year: M.L. King," each received about three thousand visits. Exhibits focusing on other topics were also successful. USIA reports indicate that in 1962 and 1963 approximately five thousand people visited the Ebony-magazine-sponsored "100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation." During 1963 and 1964 approximately 9,500 Ghanaians visited "The Negro Moves Ahead," and in 1963 approximately 3,500 people visited a special exhibit on USIA Director Carl Rowan entitled "Carl T. Rowan's Portrait."17

More significantly, the exhibits frequently prompted Ghanaians to learn more about African Americans. When a popular exhibit was on display, the USIA library often reported increased readership, with special interest in the works of African American authors such as James Baldwin. In addition, people came into the library to ask questions and to request copies of the photographs on display. These activities indicate that the exhibits had the additional effect of creating an interest in the USIA's message beyond a brief examination of the exhibits.18

At the same time, USIA personnel in Ghana developed other programs to supplement the exhibits. They obtained motion pictures such as The Rafer Johnson Story and The Lady from Tridelphia, a film about Marian Anderson's recent Asian tour, to show to general Ghanaian audiences, as well as films and filmstrips about American life targeting secondary school students. Motion pictures often produced positive results. American personnel were especially pleased with the Ghanaian reaction to The Lady from Tridelphia and wrote to Washington that audiences throughout the country were enthralled by the film and hailed Anderson as a role model.19

Embassy staff and USIA personnel presented lectures on American life and the American civil rights movement at the USIA library in Accra as well as on the campuses of secondary schools and teacher training colleges. They made tapes of speeches and commentary by black Americans available to Radio Ghana, including Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and an interview with Sidney Poitier about his Academy Award. They also developed music programs to increase interest in the United States. In May 1958 the USIA library in Accra played recordings of classical music and Negro spirituals and presented a program about the life and music of the late W. C. Handy to the headmaster, music teacher, and twenty-five students from Accra's Ebenezer Secondary School. In December 1964 the USIA resumed its production of American jazz programs for Radio Ghana with the preparation of a series of fifty half-hour shows entitled "The Sound of Jazz."20

Exhibits, films, and music were not the only weapons in America's arsenal. Perhaps the most remarkable way that the USIA and embassy staff tried to paint a positive picture of the life of black Americans was to enlist the services of African Americans traveling through Ghana. From the nation's independence and extending throughout the 1960s, American officials in Ghana welcomed dozens of African Americans to the country. These visitors included Lester Granger, executive director of the National Urban League, and Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College, both of whom received warm welcomes from the local population. USIA personnel in Ghana were impressed by the positive impact that visits of African Americans had on the Ghanaian population and made great efforts to attract prominent black Americans to the country. Several of these visits warrant special attention.21

American Cultural and Informational Programs in Ghana, Part 2

Kenneth W. Heger is the projects manager for the Modern Military Records unit in the Textual Records Services Division at the National Archives and Records Administration. He received a doctorate in history from the University of Maryland and has been with NARA since 1983.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.