Human Rights vs. Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues
The scenes of horror in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina so closely mirrored those of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that they gave America a shock: thousands of U.S. citizens, overwhelmingly poor and overwhelmingly African American, abandoned to putrid floodwaters by an indifferent government. The two disasters were separated by 80 years—decades that included the Civil Rights Movement and the end of Jim Crow—yet the similarity made unmistakably clear the enduring disparity between the rights portfolios of those Americans who escaped the floodwaters and those who were left behind.
This fact should give us pause as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So should the fact that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to demolish vast tracts of public housing in New Orleans without building new ones, a move that will ensure that the 5,000 families who have already been displaced by Hurricane Katrina will have no home to return to. In February, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for housing called on the United States to stop the demolition, warning that the plan, which disproportionately impacts African Americans and the poor, is in direct violation of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of all people and their families.
This national tragedy is no accident of history. It is the result of decades of public policy that has persisted from the Jim Crow era to the present, a legacy inseparable from the history of the UDHR. When plans for the United Nations were being formulated at the end of World War II, the United States decided to allow the language of human rights to make only a spectral appearance, buried deep in the Economic and Social Council’s work. It was a move designed to mollify both the Southern Democrats, who controlled Jim Crow and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the countervailing force of organizations such as the NAACP that were sickened by both the Holocaust and state-sanctioned apartheid at home.
Caught between Auschwitz and Mississippi, the United States appeased human rights advocates with language in the U.N. charter guaranteeing freedom from discrimination on account of race, language, sex, religion and national origin. But it cosseted the Southern Democrats by coupling that right with the domestic jurisdiction clause [Article 2(7)], which states that “nothing in the Charter shall authorize . . . intervention in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the State concerned.” The clause was meant to ensure, as key members of the State Department fully acknowledged behind closed doors, that the United Nations could not require a state to change its “immigration policy or legislation.”
Immediately after the war, in the wake of a series of high-profile lynchings and human rights abuses that engulfed the African American community, the National Negro Congress and the NAACP challenged the domestic jurisdiction clause and petitioned the United Nations to investigate the systematic human rights abuses of African Americans. NAACP attorney Robert Carter stated that it was “impossible for Negroes to attain justice within the United States” and concluded that “the only recourse left” was “direct action” by the United Nations.
Getting the United Nations to act, however, was going to be very difficult. The international Commission on Human Rights could not agree on whether it even had the authority to acknowledge, much less act upon, the thousands of petitions it had already received. The Philippine representative, Gen. Carlos Romulo, argued that the United Nations should assume the “role of a Supreme Court of Appeal” and proposed that a subcommittee review all petitions, determine their merit and present those judged valid before the commission for discussion. But Eleanor Roosevelt, as chair of the commission, quickly observed that “the Commission had no power to conduct an enquiry, or to put its decisions into force.” Charles Dukes, the British representative, concurred and asserted that the commission’s primary function was to draft an international declaration on human rights and no more.
When another wave of high-profile lynchings exposed the United States to international criticism, other U.N. delegations counseled that the United States had to “counteract widespread criticism on treatment of negroes” and that the only way to do that was to be at the forefront of securing passage of a strong “declaration of human rights.” If the United States did anything to impede the development of that declaration, doubt about America’s real commitment to human rights would reverberate throughout world. The United States had no choice but to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was completed and approved at the December 1948 meeting of the United Nations.
But the Southern Democrats made it very clear that a statement of universal human rights threatened the maintenance of white supremacy. Given that they controlled the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had the votes to block the passage of any treaty, the State Department searched for a way to be the Cold War leader in human rights without advancing U.S. human rights. The fear was that, as with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would inevitably develop a resonance far beyond that which the United States had intended. Although the declaration was meant to be a mere statement—a “sermon on the mount” rather than a legal document, according to former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—the lifeline it held out to billions of people could not be boxed in by legalisms.
As the United Nations turned to develop the declaration into a covenant— a lasting, binding treaty—the United States balked. The State Department was clear that the “obstacles” to U.S. support were the nondiscrimination article and its “import for other articles of substance”: rights like housing, education and health care. U.S. leaders used their enormous clout to break the declaration into two covenants that separated political and civil rights from the so-called “communistic” aspirations of economic and social rights. It inserted a federal–state clause into the former and then abandoned both treaties altogether because of a massive insurgency sparked by Republican fears of encroachment on national sovereignty and Southern Democratic panic that the separate Genocide Convention would serve as a “backdoor method to a federal anti-lynching bill.”
While the rest of the world moved forward, the United States retreated from human rights. It signed but never ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and when it finally ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, it did so with so many exceptions as to render it virtually meaningless.
As one civil rights triumph after the next left virtually untouched the human rights catastrophe brewing in African American communities, the limits of the movement became painfully apparent. The pervasiveness of the troubles in African American communities today— political disenfranchisement, poverty, homelessness, lack of access to health care and decent education—demonstrates the indivisibility of all human rights and the continued relevance of the UDHR. When the U.N. rapporteur chastised the United States for destroying public housing in New Orleans, it was a signal of how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may yet transform, in the words of historian Paul Gordon Lauren, “objects of international pity into subjects of international law.”
Carol Anderson is an associate professor of history at the Univ of Missouri and author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights.