From Civil Rights to International Human Rights

Article excerpt

The movement for racial justice in the U.S. has a proud legacy of appeals to the international community starting as far back as the anti-slavery movement. The belief that international pressure on the U.S. was an important component of a multi-faceted campaign against racism fueled efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to engage what were then the U.N.'s newly established human rights mechanisms.

The belief that full redress may lie only in bringing world attention to the plight of African Americans and making common cause with the "colored races of the world," led W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mordecai W. Johnson and other African American leaders to participate as "activist observers" at the San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations. There they joined oppressed and colonial peoples from around the world in lobbying the "great powers" to include in the U.N. Charter basic guarantees of fundamental rights. Their success in achieving a document that paid unprecedented attention to the equality of all human beings, the U.N. Charter, was reported widely in the African American media and was the source of renewed hope for many activists of the day.

In 1946, shortly after the creation of the U.N., the National Negro Congress of the U.S., meeting in Detroit at its tenth anniversary convention, adopted a petition to the United Nations calling on the U.N. to study the patterns of racial discrimination in the U.S. and to take action to ensure that international human rights standards are actually achieved in the U.S. That submission and another similar submission drafted by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1947 for the NAACP were among some of the first petitions ever to call on the U.N. to investigate domestic human rights abuses within a U.N. Member State.

The petitions ultimately failed in generating a U.N. review of racism in the U.S., but they nevertheless, served a very important function. The petitions gained highly visible support from a significant number of Third World governments and future leaders in colonial countries. They also received widespread press coverage in the U.S. and abroad and a wide array of U.S. organizations ultimately endorsed the petitions.

The U.S. Administration was deeply embarrassed by these petitions. At the same time that the Truman Administration and American icons like Eleanor Roosevelt were playing a leadership role internationally in the founding of the United Nations and the drafting of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the reality of African Americans was the complete antithesis of the principles being advanced on the international level. In response, rather than taking bold steps to bring U.S. practices into compliance with international standards by eliminating racial discrimination, to avoid further embarrassment, the U.S. government sought for many decades to insulate itself from the U.N.'s human rights machinery and international scrutiny.

As a result, U.S. civil rights groups themselves became increasingly isolated from the international human rights movement, a position that was of only limited concern while the domestic strategies were continually gaining ground. …