About the Author: Gregory Garland works in the Bureau of African Affairs. Fifty years ago today, President Eisenhower and the Congress created the bureau within the U.S. Department of State.
I'm happy to call attention to the fact that the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs is 50 years old this year. As a Foreign Service Officer who has devoted a large part of my career to U.S.-African relations, I've used the opportunity to do what birthdays tend to make us do, reflect on the past with an eye to the future. I've found that the story of the U.S. official relationship with Africa is complicated, often contradictory, and goes to the heart of the great issues of the mid-twentieth century that defined not only Africa, but America itself: the Cold War, decolonization, and the civil rights movement.
Established at the beginning of Africa's decolonization process, the Africa Bureau quickly expanded as the number of independent countries in sub-Saharan Africa mushroomed from four in 1958 to dozens in the space of a few years. Uncle Sam's relatively sudden recognition of Africa's rising importance sent a message of a new American engagement with Africa. But it was one thing to build new buildings. It was another to face up to a tumor embedded in the deepest layers of American society and which bedeviled the nation's image around the world: Jim Crow laws promoting racial segregation. Early on, the Africa Bureau learned that the separation of foreign from domestic affairs isn't always so easy. Diplomacy is a two-way street, and as Americans went out by the hundreds to serve in Africa, African diplomats came to the United States. They didn't always find themselves welcomed with open arms.
CASE IN POINT
I found out about a series of incidents of racial discrimination against African diplomats. On October 9, 1957, newly independent Ghana's finance minister, H.A. Gbedemah, was driving between the United Nations in New York and Washington. He stopped at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Delaware for lunch and was refused service because of the color of his skin. Gbedemah's case made headlines, in great part because it happened to coincide with the school integration crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, the first major enforcement of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision ruling racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Brown v. Board of Education. President Eisenhower, who had already ordered U.S. troops to protect African American students as they integrated Little Rock's Central High School, moved quickly to control the damage by inviting Gbedemah to the White House. Yet, not even Eisenhower's public apology stopped the abuse of African diplomats. The incident was only the first of a series of cases involving African diplomats, who were also refused permission to buy or lease property in affluent neighborhoods of the District of Columbia for use as official residences.
Enough was enough. In 1961, the State Department under the administration of President John F. Kennedy tried a new approach. A new office, called Special Protocol Service Section, would devote itself entirely to discrimination against African diplomats. The idea came from Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles. AF's then-assistant secretary, former Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams, proved instrumental in setting up the new office, whose head, Pedro Sanjuan, was a political appointee and friend of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Sanjuan launched a campaign led by federal officials -- including Department of State officials -- to end segregation in D.C. and Maryland, exactly those areas where Africa diplomats most experienced racial discrimination. It was a first: The department charged with conducting foreign policy was interjecting itself into state and local politics. I saw then, that even in the 1950s, it was impossible to segregate foreign from domestic policies, especially in a world a rapidly transforming travel and instant communications.
THE POWER OF SETTING AN EXAMPLE AT HOME
The young Africa Bureau's first major contribution to U.S. foreign policy turned out to be reminding Washington of the importance of America's living up to its ideals. Rhetoric overseas about freedom and equality under the law rang hollow for Africans and other non-whites around the world as long as state-sanctioned racial discrimination existed in America.
It was this insight that drove then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to urge Congress to pass what most citizens considered domestic legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964,which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Rusk called it a landmark act of foreign policy. But he reminded members of Congress that the true power of finally ending legally sanctioned racial discrimination at home lay not in the effort "merely to look good abroad…but because it is incompatible with the great ideals to which our democratic society is dedicated."
AN IMPERFECT RECORD
Over five decades, the Africa Bureau would remain particularly aware of the link between domestic and foreign politics and the power of the ideals embodied in the American system. The Cold War, which provided a crucial justification for AF's creation, would test these ideals repeatedly, especially in Mobutu's Zaire and apartheid South Africa. But the real story of the bureau's half century lies in the tension between the often conflicting objectives of decolonization, promoting democracy and justice, confronting communism and remaining consistent with American values. The record at best is mixed and deserving of serious examination and criticism, especially in the early years. One thing is certain, however: The relationship between Africa and America runs deep, and is growing deeper.