In the History Corner… Black America appeals to the United Nations

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October 23rd marks 75 years since the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a petition with the United Nations (UN). The petition was submitted on behalf of the more than 15 million Americans of African descent in the country at the time. 

“An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and An Appeal to the United Nations for Redress” was aimed at combatting racial segregation, disfranchisement, murder, and other forms of racial oppression running rampant in America. It did not just have the blessing of the NAACP. It was basically spearheaded by the highly-respected Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, with contributing data from the likes of Milton Konvitz, Earl Wilkerson, William Ming, and Rayford Logan. It was apparently the first such document presented to the newly established United Nations. (That international body had just been organized in 1945 on the heels of the ending of World War II and was backed by the United States of America, along with Russia, Great Britain, France, and the other big powers of the so-called western world.)

It may also be noteworthy that Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt, was active not only in the United Nations, but was a long-time member of the board of directors of the NAACP. With those kinds of connections and the optimism about the role of the United Nations, DuBois and company developed and presented the petition. Their hope was that the other nations of the world body would seize the opportunity to pressure the USA into resolving the problem of racial oppression, which was left incomplete after Reconstruction. They had hoped that it would be done in the name of protecting and expanding the idea of democracy on the global scene.

The UN, however, failed to take the requested action. That was the case then and on other later occasions. The problem has been the tremendous influence that the U.S. has in the UN. Among other things, the U.S. is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and as such, can veto any of its proposed actions. The UN has also taken no action because of the continued existence of colonialism and European hegemony, especially when it comes to matters of race. In that case, it has had the continued support of the likes of England and France, which are also permanent members of the Security Council. 

The UN could have acted based upon its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10, 1948 and its Genocide Convention, adopted December 3, 1948. It, nevertheless, stood silent and inactive. (As history shows, it was years later before the U.S. adopted these documents precisely because it did not want to be judged and found guilty of those such crimes.)

Based upon those conditions, there was no real shock or surprise when the Civil Rights Congress had its document, “We Charge Genocide,” presented to the UN in December 1951 rejected. That document followed much the same pattern and set of charges outlined in “An Appeal to the World.” It was just more exhaustive. “We Charge Genocide” was heavily promoted by noted singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who delivered a copy of the document to a UN official in New York. William Patterson, the executive director of the Civil Rights Congress, delivered a copy to a UN delegation when it met in Paris. In neither case was there a formal discussion of the charges.

Instead of the UN taking any action, the U.S. engaged in a negative campaign against the Civil Rights Congress, pointing to the fact that some of its key members were communists. In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, that action proved to be the fatal nail in the coffin for the Civil Rights Congress’ appeal.

The initiatives of DuBois and the NAACP as well as that of the Civil Rights Congress, nevertheless, underscored the determination of Black leaders to secure a solution, or at least powerful assistance toward a solution, in the struggle for full-citizenship rights and treatment. In more recent times, despite those failures, Malcolm X in the 1960s revived the effort, hoping to get friendly countries to sponsor a similar appeal. Finally, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) in the late 1960s, took up Malcolm’s mantle and mounted an appeal to the UN.

Under RNA President Imari Obadele, the RNA mounted a campaign to gain signatures on a petition to be presented to the UN. The position of the RNA was designed to have the deep south states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina declared to be the Republic of New Afrika, based upon the fact that it was these states more than any others that produced the wealth of the antebellum south, that those states had become the homeland of the majority of the enslaved Africans in the 1800s, and that they constituted 10% of the USA which should be transferred to the Black 10% of the population.

Although the RNA strategy was based more on the idea of liberation for Black people, it, nevertheless, was as unsuccessful as had been the appeals of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress. The question thus becomes, “What do activists of that mindset do regarding the UN?”

On the one hand, it would be easy to simply write-off such an effort as a waste of time. Many have done just that, deciding to use their energy on other efforts. On the other hand, those past UN appeals could be studied in order to see what changes might yield greater success in the future since the UN is a potentially powerful body. 

The problem of racial oppression under white supremacy is still alive and well. Furthermore, it could get stronger rather than die as its present proponents become bolder each year since the emergence of Donald Trump. This means that an effective solution has to be found that may necessarily be beyond the framework of America’s political system. If so, perhaps the UN can play a vital role in that effort. 

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In the History Corner… Black America appeals to the United Nations

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
October 24, 2022