Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955/window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988

By Robinson, Lori | The Crisis, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955/window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988


Robinson, Lori, The Crisis


books American Civil Rights, a World View Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle For Human Rights, 1944-1955 By Carol Anderson (Cambridge University Press, $65/$23 paper) Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988 Edited by Brenda Gayle Plummer (University of North Carolina Press, $45/$18.95 paper)

African American advances toward equality are often attributed to the bravery, intelligence and determination of grassroots activists and civil rights leaders. While such accolades may be well-deserved, they omit a crucial aspect of the struggle for justice: the international arena.

Two new books place many of the successes and failures of the movement for racial justice in the context of foreign affairs. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 and Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988, an edited volume with 10 contributors, both broaden the commonly myopic view of U.S. antiracism history.

Eyes Off the Prize examines an 11-year period beginning in 1944, the year before World War II ended. It opens with African American leaders believing the ideal timing for the definitive assault on racial inequality - with the United Nations (UN) forming in the wake of Nazi atrocities - had arrived. Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia, meticulously traces how the NAACP-led charge for human rights quickly disintegrated into a movement for civil rights, which she describes as an inadequate means of achieving racial equality.

The NAACP and other groups pressured the United States to support the inclusion of human rights in the United Nations charter. "Yet, the tendency of 'friends' and foes alike to depict human rights as communistic, Soviet-inspired and treasonous especially during the McCarthy era - threatened to expose the NAACP to the same inquisition that was destroying the Black Left. The barely veiled threat of extinction compelled the NAACP leadership to retreat to the haven of civil rights, wrap itself in the flag and distance the association from the now-tainted struggle for human rights," writes Anderson.

In her introduction to Window on Freedom, Plummer, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes that the book was published to help explain "the salience of race in U.S. foreign and domestic relationships and in the struggle to realize full citizenship for all Americans."

Window on Freedom uncovers details about topics such as how racism against African diplomats helped expose domestic racism to the world. When Black diplomats couldn't find places to live or were refused service in restaurants, newspapers all over the world ran stories about the hypocrisy of America, which was always boasting about its freedom and democracy.

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