Edith Sampson: Cold War Warrior

Edith Sampson: Cold War Warrior


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The countries of the world are looking to America for leadership and democracy. . . .

We will not win their confidence, especially the confidence of Asia’s dark-skinned millions,

if they continue to read about discriminatory practices in America




Edith Sampson: A Cold War Warrior

Defends American Democracy Around the World Before 1964

excerpts from “The American Way” by Helen Laville & Scot Lucas


Our government has been employing Negro intellectuals, entertainers, ministers, and many others to play the roles of ambassadorial Uncle Toms for years. They are supposed to show their well-fed, well-groomed faces behind the Iron Curtain as living proof that everyone is free and equal in the U.S. and the color bar is a myth. — Paul Robeson, Here I Stand

I was not a lackey for the State Department I assailed racism and racists whose names were known to the Indians in my audiences. I simply went from Darjeeling to Patna to Cuttack to madras, saying good things about my country because I believed that the society that had given me a break was in the process of taking great strides toward racial justice. — Carl Rowan, Breaking Barriers

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By the time of her death in 1979, Edith Sampson had become a footnote in African American history. Few would have known of her work for the U.S. government between 1949 and 1962. She served as the first black woman on the permanent U.S. delegation to the United Nations, gave several international lecture tours, and held membership on the U.S. delegation to NATO.

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By 1948, Edith Sampson had already had a remarkable career. Born in 1901, one of eight children of a launderer in Pittsburgh, she attended the New York School of Social Work but decided in her twenties to change her profession. Married, raising two children left by a deceased sister, and working full-time, she obtained a law degree through evening classes at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She failed the bar examination but earned a master’s degree at Loyola University and passed the bar on her second attempt. Quickly moving from the probation officer to assistant referee in juvenile court to assistant state’s attorney in Cook county, she finally established a successful private practice and, in 1934, became one of the first women to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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“The countries of the world are looking to America for leadership and democracy. . . . We will not win their confidence, especially the confidence of Asia’s dark-skinned millions, if they continue to read about discriminatory practices in America. Therefore, I say, the best answer to communist propaganda to divide the white against the colored people.” Sampson in Delhi, India

“Unfortunately, Mr. Robeson had all his training in America, and he has forgotten that he owes a great deal to our democracy. he does not represent any organization–only a lunatic fringe in America.” Sampson in Delhi, India

“I think one of the great instruments in quickening the pace of the American white man is the report that we at the Town Hall are going to take back to white America. I am sure, when they hear of the unrest we have found throughout the world, they’re going to clear up their own backyard.” —Sampson in Delhi, India

“You have got to open these closed doors and end segregation if you are going to save yourselves. Communist agents have used the story of segregation as a propaganda weapon. . . . It is bad enough, but the story they get abroad is worse than is actually true. if we had a real Fair Employment Practices Commission, it would mean more than having millions of dollars spent through the Marshall Plan. The people of the eastern and backward countries do not want gratuities, they want to be able to believe in you.” Sampson in Des Moines (1950)

“We Negroes aren’t interested in Communism. . . . We were slaves too long for that. Nobody is happy with second-class citizenship, but our best chances are in the framework of American democracy.” Sampson to Soviet Ambassador Malik (1950)

“Only a few American Negroes have been unable to overcome the ‘slave mentality.’ These few, lost without a master to serve, have found that master in Moscow.” Sampson in Austria (1951)

“I believe that you, more than any man in public life today, represent something very special: a Southerner dedicated to an honorable and peaceful solution of a grave conflict between races and between sections of the country. Your voice has been the voice of decency and the voice of commons sense. the fact that it has a Southern accent makes it all the more powerful.” Sampson to Lyndon Johnson (1961)

“Hundreds, thousands of our people have walked city streets and county highway in demonstration. They’ve sat in, waded in, knelt in. I admire them. . . . You, though, i admire even more. You reassure me. . . . What you’ve been demonstrating is that the disadvantaged, which is what we are, can make their way to usefulness despite the disadvantages.” Sampson to a YMCA Job Opportunities through Better Skills Program (1965)

“We learned that you can work within the establishment, the system, without necessarily knuckling under to it. You can change the system, little by little, without destroying it completely. Democracy really is better than the chaotic anarchy that some New left fanatics advocate. . . .  We learned that person-to-person contact was far more important than any laws on the books or any administrative actions or any decisions from the high courts of the land.” Sampson at George Williams College (1969)

Source: “The American Way” by Helen Laville & Scot Lucas in Diplomatic History, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Fall 1996)

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update 21 December 2011




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