In 1948, the United Nations (U.N.), the international organization that replaced the League of Nations after World War II, issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration was an attempt to address the death and dislocation resulting from World War II. For instance, the genocide committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust indicated the need for an international body to investigate human rights abuses during war (and peace).
(You won't be tested on this.)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights began by stating that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Next, it identified, in a series of 30 articles, the rights and liberties that were to be enjoyed by all people. Among others, they included the following:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
By indicating that distinctions would not be made according to sovereignty, the Declaration maintained that liberty was the right of every person, simply because they were human. Furthermore, it affirmed that the U.N. — an international body — would monitor how nations treated their citizens.
Due to Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both opposed the addition of an enforcement provision to the human rights declaration, fearing that the U.N. might hinder their foreign policy objectives. As a result, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has never included an enforcement mechanism. It was nevertheless evident that, in the aftermath of World War II, “human rights” would be a political issue that both superpowers had to confront.
Black civil rights activists in the U.S. followed global discussions of human rights closely. In 1945, W. E. B. Du Bois remained active in the NAACP, but began to devote more time and energy to international matters concerning people of color, especially pan-Africanism.
In 1947, one year before the UN issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the NAACP submitted a petition asking the organization to investigate racism in the United States.
Du Bois (1947) wrote the Introduction to the petition, in which he described America’s history of racial inequality to the world.
A nation which boldly declared “All men equal,” proceeded to build its economy on chattel slavery; masters who declared race-mixture impossible, sold their own children into slavery and left a mulatto progeny which neither law nor science can today disentangle; churches which excused slavery as calling the heathen to God, refused to recognize the freedom of converts or admit them to equal communion….Poverty, ignorance, disease, and crime have been forced on these unfortunate victims of greed to an extent far beyond any social necessity; and a great nation, which today ought to be in the forefront of the march toward peace and democracy, finds itself continuously making common cause with race hate, prejudiced exploitation and oppression of the common man.”
How does Du Bois’s discussion of American history through the lens of race challenge the perception of the United States as a nation of “peace and democracy”? Du Bois concluded his introduction with an “appeal to the world” in which he asked the "Peoples of the World" to pay attention to the African-American struggle for civil rights:
“We appeal to the world to witness that this attitude of America is far more dangerous to mankind than the Atom bomb; and far, far more clamorous for attention than disarmament or treaty. To disarm the hidebound minds of men is the only path to peace; and as long as Great Britain and the United States profess democracy with one hand and deny it to millions with the other, they convince none of their sincerity, least of all themselves….
Therefore, Peoples of the World, we American Negroes appeal to you; our treatment in America is not merely an internal question of the United States. It is a basic problem of humanity; of democracy; of discrimination because of race and color; and as such it demands your attention and action.”
W. E. B. Du Bois' efforts to bring racism in the United States to the attention of the world, and discussions regarding human rights in the United Nations, contributed to the context in which President Truman’s administration addressed race during the late 1940s.
In December of 1946, Truman created a Presidential Committee on Civil Rights to investigate racism in the U.S. Less than one year later, in October of 1947, the Committee published its findings in a report titled To Secure These Rights.
The report was notable for two reasons. First, it provided one of the most detailed examinations of racial inequality in the U.S. during the 20th century. Throughout 1947, the Committee held hearings and gathered evidence that exposed patterns of racial discrimination in employment, housing, and voting.
It also noted widespread police brutality against African Americans in urban areas. The report stated that, “In various localities, scattered throughout the country, unprofessional or undisciplined police, while avoiding brutality, fail to recognize and to safeguard the civil rights of the citizenry. Insensitive to the necessary limits of police authority, untrained officers frequently overstep the bounds of their proper duties. At times this appears in unwarranted arrests, unduly prolonged detention before arraignment, and abuse of the search and seizure power.”
Second, the committee concluded that the federal government must take a lead role in ensuring equal protection under the law and eliminating discrimination. It provided three reasons for doing so. The first was “The Moral Reason”:
What is the “moral damage” of “civil rights transgressions” to African Americans? To white Americans?
The report also provided an “Economic Reason” for ending racial discrimination, highlighting employment and economic discrimination that African Americans and other minority groups experienced. Finally, the report presented an “International Reason” for promoting racial equality which referenced the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union:
“We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics. The world's press and radio are full of it. This Committee has seen a multitude of samples. We and our friends have been, and are, stressing our achievements. Those with competing philosophies have stressed -- and are shamelessly distorting -- our shortcomings. They have not only tried to create hostility toward us among specific nations, races, and religious groups. They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud, and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people….
The international reason for acting to secure our civil rights now is not to win the approval of our totalitarian critics. We would not expect it if our record were spotless; to them our civil rights record is only a convenient weapon with which to attack us. Certainly we would like to deprive them of that weapon. But we are more concerned with the good opinion of the peoples of the world.”
Some historians, including Mary L. Dudziak, have recently argued that civil rights milestones (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education) should be considered in the context of the Cold War. In her 2004 article, “Brown as a Cold War Case”, Dudziak noted that Brown received extensive international coverage. African-American newspapers throughout the nation listed the potentially-positive results that the decision might have for people of color around the world. Chief Justice Warren also recognized the impact that the Supreme Court's decision might have on the Cold War.
Based on this evidence, Dudziak concluded that the American civil rights movement, the Cold War, and international discussions of human rights were intertwined.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Roosevelt, PD, http://bit.ly/1NVGizq Universal Dec of Human Rights. Ret from U of MN Human Rights Library: http://bit.ly/2kA7XiJ Du Bois, OER Commons: http://bit.ly/2qpBOcL DuBois, “An Appeal to the World,” Ret http://bit.ly/1KuE7wm To Secure These Rights, LOC http://bit.ly/2pxWnDV The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, Truman Library, http://bit.ly/2py91Tb Warren quote “Text of Warren Speech at Bar ‘Home’ Dedication, New York Times, Aug 20, 1954. M. Dudziak, “Brown as a Cold War Case,” Journal of American History 91 (Jun 2004): 32-42.