Reviews | 70 years ago black activists accused the United States of genocide. They should have been taken seriously.

The 240-page petition, “We Blame Genocide: The Government’s Crime Against Black People,” was meant to be sensational. America had been instrumental in pursuing the Nazis in Nuremberg, and now its own citizens were turning their backs on the United States in the most horrific and accusatory terms.

Instead, the mainstream media largely ignored him. the New York Times and Washington post mentioned the petition in brief stories buried in the last few pages. the Chicago Tribune condemned him for “shameful lies”. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish jurist who coined the term “genocide”, publicly disapproved of the entire basis of the petition, saying it confused genocide with discrimination.

The writers of the document didn’t expect it to go anywhere; they knew the United States had too much power at the UN for the petition to be accepted. They had drafted it less as a formal accusation than as the presentation of an allegation, loosely drafted on the model of a legal brief. They hoped, but did not expect, that the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights or some other party at the UN could take the matter under advisement. It never happened.

But now, 70 years later, the document has a new resonance amid the blatant injustices of police brutality that continue to occur and racial inequalities in healthcare, especially throughout the pandemic. “We Charge Genocide” explored these types of issues at length, making a compelling case for reflection on structural racism. like genocide, which requires not only condemnation but also reparation and reparation. Examining the arguments for “We Charge Genocide,” written by some of the most notable figures of the mid-century civil rights movement, offers important information about where we are now and how to move forward.

Two events set the scene for the charge of black genocide in 1951 – one international and one national.

The first was close to a miracle. After two years of political haggling in the wake of the Nazi atrocities, UN member states each agreed to relinquish a small portion of their sacrosanct sovereignty when the body adopted the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Control. repression of the crime of genocide. This codified a legal definition of genocide, criminalizing group destruction and opening the door to prosecution in an international tribunal. Since then, the convention has been used both to hold perpetrators of genocide to account in places like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia and, above all, to establish or pave the way for mechanisms for reparation once it has been established that genocide has taken place.

The Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”. He also clarified that these acts include not only murder, but also attempts to destroy groups by “bodily or mental harm”, hindrance to reproduction, difficult living conditions and kidnapping of children.

Second, the black civil rights movement gained momentum after World War II. The struggles for freedom and racism became a global focus of attention, and the newly created UN, which included a Commission on Human Rights, provided states with a new global platform for protesting racism. -United. Black activists have used it to internationalize and expand their movement, in part by reframing it in terms of human rights.

Two previous petitions preceded “We blame the genocide”. In 1946, the National Negro Congress handed an eight-page petition to the UN Secretary-General asking him to take action against the subjugation of black Americans, especially in the South, where 10 million blacks live in deplorable conditions. . The UN, mired in politics, has not acted. But the petition has had some success, especially overseas, in calling attention to the plight of black Americans.

Seeing the potential of such petitions, the NAACP, frustrated by the US government’s slow pace of racial reform, embarked on a much more ambitious initiative. On October 23, 1947, he presented a vast “Call to the World! ”Of 95 pages. petition to the UN The declaration, which attracted much more attention, lambasted the United States for denying a host of human rights to its black minority population.

“We Charge Genocide,” a Civil Rights Congress project, followed this tradition, but was even more ambitious and inflammatory, explicitly situating its documentation of American racism in the context of genocide – a new type of crime, freshly described by ‘UN

“We Charge Genocide” begins with a murder: The petition documents hundreds of murders and other abuses, some involving the police, which took place from 1945, when the UN was founded, to 1951. It claims that more than 10,000 blacks have been lynched or lynched. killed, often for something as small as’ not saying ‘sir’ or taking their hats off. Many others, he adds, have suffered “serious bodily and mental injuries” resulting from beatings, assaults and terror caused by the constant threat of such attacks.

Direct violence was only part of the charge. Another part was the systematic treatment of blacks in society. The petitioners took the minimalist language of the United Nations genocide convention, on things like living conditions, and gave it shape and form with real-world examples. The petition describes the harsh living conditions to which black Americans were subjected: lives reduced in terms of housing, medical care, education, segregation, employment opportunities, sharecropping, incarceration, housing, poverty and voter suppression. As a result, according to the petition, an additional 30,000 blacks died each year and black Americans lived eight years less than whites. According to the petition, officials from all three branches of the US government were guilty of inciting, conspiring to commit or aiding and abetting such genocidal acts, with examples ranging from police violence to racist laws enacted by members of Congress.

Evidence of black genocide, the petition concludes, “is everywhere in American life,” and as a “conscience of humanity,” the United Nations General Assembly should not remain silent but should both condemn the United States and demand that the country take action to stop the genocide and prevent its persistence.

The petition had 94 signatories, including families of victims. Some were with Robeson when he presented the petition to the UN in New York, including the widow of one of the “Martinsville Seven”, executed after being falsely accused of raping a white woman.

The petition has been received by UN officials in Paris and New York. Patterson even discussed it with a handful of delegates from countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India and Liberia. But no one agreed to push it forward.

Cold War politics were a big part of the reason why. The US government, worried about bad public relations during the Cold War, has launched a campaign to mitigate any national and international impact it may have.

In 1951, the Red Scare was in full swing. The Soviet Union was nuclear; Mao had taken control of China; war was raging in Korea; and Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading the now infamous hearings on the Communist infiltration of black American nationalists. The “We Charge Genocide” petitioners were among the targets. The government had previously confiscated Robeson’s passport, which is why it presented the document in New York. He grabbed Patterson after he presented the petition in Paris.

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