6. Editorial Note

In a January 17, 1964, letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, United States Information Agency (USIA) Director Edward R. Murrow discussed responses to the USIA film, “The March,” which documented the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Murrow, Senator William Fulbright (Democrat-Arkansas) and others “questioned the effectiveness abroad” of the film. Murrow explained to the President that he had commissioned the film to counter the “distortion” around the world concerning the role violence played in the Civil Rights movement. The film, he stressed, emphasized “that 200,000 Americans, both Negro and white, came to their nation’s capitol and demonstrated peacefully to further the civil rights movement. The quality of that march, which has been described by so many as ‘spiritual’, comes across most forcefully in the film,” and was, in his opinion, “probably the finest argument for peaceful petition for redress of grievance that has ever been put on film.” Noting that the film had been distributed to posts, “under the usual operating procedures,” Murrow added that if Public Affairs Officers “do not believe it will have a positive effect in their countries, they simply will not show the film.” (Johnson Library, White House Central Files, Subject Files, EX FG 296, Box FG–314, FG 296 U.S. Information Agency 11/22/63–1/31/64)

USIA Director-designate Carl T. Rowan addressed the film within the context of an interview with American Broadcasting Company (ABC) news correspondent Howard K. Smith, scheduled for broadcast [Page 15] on the ABC news current affairs program, “Issues and Answers,” on February 2. Smith, referencing the film, stated that despite the film’s accuracy, “many Congressmen felt it would give a false impression to primitive peoples in Africa, and they criticized USIA for producing it.” In response to Smith’s question as to how Rowan would handle the situation, Rowan responded: “I am not going to adopt any policies, and I don’t believe the United States government can adopt any policies based on the assumption that the people of Africa are so primitive that they can’t understand some fundamentals of life that we in the United States or that the peoples of Europe understand. Now, as I understand this film and as I have looked at it, the purpose of it is to show that this is a country with problems, yes, but a country where the right of peaceful protest, the right of petition, is as much alive as it ever was in the mind of Thomas Jefferson.” Rowan continued by stating: “I know Africans who know a lot more about Thomas Jefferson and our Constitution and our Bill of Rights than my children do, or than most American children do. And if they don’t understand it, then that is USIA’s job to use this film in such a way as to ensure that this point does come across. And I happen to think it is a point worth making.” (Transcript of Carl T. Rowan’s Appearance on “Issues and Answers”; National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Office of the Director, Biographic Files Relating to USIA Directors and Other Senior Officials, 1953–2000, Entry A1–1069, Box 26, Carl T. Rowan, 1957–1998)

In Joint Circular Message 1431, February 5, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Acting Director of the United States Information Agency Donald Wilson noted the “growing consensus” in Washington that the “film ‘The March’ could be extremely effective for certain audiences in those countries where there is considerable knowledge of the context of the civil rights struggle in the United States and the role played by the Federal Government and bipartisan support for programs on civil rights.” For other countries, the “problem of context might be met by showing the film in conjunction with others illustrating Government’s support for civil rights, including President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 speech and President Johnson’s strong commitment to civil rights, as demonstrated in films ‘Let Us Continue’ and ‘The President.’” Rusk and Wilson requested that before public showings, the country team make an evaluation “of the value of the film” and determine how the team planned to use the film and send the evaluations to Washington by cable. (National Archives, RG 306, DIRCTR Sub Files, 1963–69, Box 6–29 63–69: Acc: #72A5121, Entry UD WW 257, Box 20, The March)

Three days later on February 8, Wilson sent a memorandum to Rusk with copies sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the President’s Special Assistant Bill Moyers noting that “The March” was screened for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the morning of [Page 16] February 7. Wilson stated he had explained the film’s background and noted that Joint Circular 1431 had placed a “‘hold’ on public showings and requires a Country Team evaluation.” Wilson wrote that Senator Bourke Hickenlooper (Republican-Iowa) had asserted that the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information (USACI) had “unanimously recommended” that the film not be shown and the USIA had “elected to override that advice.” Addressing Hickenlooper’s concern, he commented that the USACI recommended that care be used in the selection of countries for showing “The March,” adding that “I said that our approach in the cable of February 5 met that Advisory Commission concern directly.”

Continuing, Wilson wrote that Hickenlooper, Senator Frank J. Lausche (Democrat-Ohio), and “to a lesser extent” Senator George Aiken (Republican-Vermont) “commented adversely” on the film before the showing and that Hickenlooper, referred to “our country’s propensity for ‘self-flagellation’ before the world.” Fulbright’s views were “favorable toward usage of the film before audiences able to comprehend the background and context of the civil rights movement in this country.” Fulbright was concerned whether USIA and USIS could properly explain that “when the Negro in this country says ‘I want freedom’ he means something much different than when an African from a former Colonial area says it.” (National Archives, RG 306, DIRCTR Subj. Files, 1963–69, Box 6–29 63–69: Acc: #72A5121, Entry UD WW 257, Box 17, Motion Pictures—General, 1964)

A May 28 memorandum from Dennis Askey to Rowan summarized some of the responses requested by Joint Circular 1431. Askey wrote: “Evaluation of ‘The March’ by Ambassadors and country teams from 95 posts shows a consensus that the film has proved widely effective in countering both natural and Communist-influenced misunderstanding overseas of the nature and intent of our continuing civil rights demonstrations.” He also noted that in countries “where problems of context do exist” USIA had shown “The March” in conjunction with other USIA films underscoring U.S. support for civil rights, commenting that the addition of an introductory statement made by Rowan had “further relieved” problems of context. Askey concluded by explaining that 23 posts had not yet used the film, adding that 3 had judged it “generally” counter-productive”, 13 cited lack of public interest, and others preferred to withhold screening until passage of the Civil Rights Act. (Ibid.)

On July 7, Rowan testified before a Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, regarding Fiscal Year 1965 appropriations. In reference to questions concerning “The March,” he first explained the global reaction to the film and the history behind sending Joint Circular 1431 in order to elicit responses from the country teams. Rowan stated: “I have here, for example, a newspaper from India about [Page 17] the showing of this film in Calcutta. Calcutta just happens to be our most troublesome major city in India. It has the greatest percentage of Communists. The university students or student groups are generally controlled by Communists. The Embassy in Delhi has made it clear that USIS’s biggest job in India is in the Calcutta area. This article says that: ‘This film has made a big impact on the young intelligentsia of this city. A most moving human document, the film has been shown to college students all over Calcutta and in June and July will be shown in educational institutions in the district. It was a very pleasant revelation to college authorities that for once the thunder had been stolen from the Communist sympathizers in the colleges.’ So these are our friends in India who are crediting this film with making it possible for them to steal the thunder from the Communist sympathizers and get the youth to talk about something much more constructive in the United States.” Rowan further stressed that “whereas a lot of [Communist sympathizers] wanted to make all Indians believe that every white American was at every Negro American’s throat, this film showed in a very dramatic fashion, but not a hammer-on-the-head way, the fact that there was considerable cooperation between American Negroes and whites in this country; that whereas the Communists were trying to spread the propaganda that every Negro in the United States was wallowing in misery and poverty, these students could see that here were Negro Americans who were well dressed, well educated, articulate, and, what was extremely important, that they had a freedom which does not exist in the majority of the countries of the world, and that is the freedom under the first amendment of our Constitution, the right to peacefully assemble and seek redress of grievances, which is what this film illustrated very dramatically.” (Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, 88th Congress, Second Session on H.R. 11134 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1964), pages 1672–1677)