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Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955

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As World War II drew to a close and the world awakened to the horrors wrought by white supremacists in Nazi Germany, the NAACP and African-American leaders sensed an opportunity to launch an offensive against the conditions of segregation and inequality in the United States. The "prize" they sought was not civil rights, but human rights. Only the human rights lexicon, shap As World War II drew to a close and the world awakened to the horrors wrought by white supremacists in Nazi Germany, the NAACP and African-American leaders sensed an opportunity to launch an offensive against the conditions of segregation and inequality in the United States. The "prize" they sought was not civil rights, but human rights. Only the human rights lexicon, shaped by the Holocaust and articulated by the United Nations, contained the language and the moral power to address not only the political and legal inequality but also the education, health care, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. The NAACP understood this and wielded its influence and resources to take its human rights agenda before the United Nations. But the onset of the Cold War and rising anti-communism allowed powerful southerners to cast those rights as Soviet-inspired and a threat to the American "ways of life." Enemies and friends excoriated the movement, and the NAACP retreated to a narrow civil rights agenda that was easier to maintain politically. Thus the Civil Rights Movement was launched with neither the language nor the mission it needed to truly achieve black equality. Carol Anderson is the recipient of major grants from the Ford Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, and numerous awards for excellence in teaching. Her scholarly interests are 20th century American, African-American, and diplomatic history, and the impact of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy on the struggle for black equality in particular. Her publications include "From Hope to Disillusion published in Diplomatic History and reprinted in The African-American Voice in U.S. Foreign Policy.


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As World War II drew to a close and the world awakened to the horrors wrought by white supremacists in Nazi Germany, the NAACP and African-American leaders sensed an opportunity to launch an offensive against the conditions of segregation and inequality in the United States. The "prize" they sought was not civil rights, but human rights. Only the human rights lexicon, shap As World War II drew to a close and the world awakened to the horrors wrought by white supremacists in Nazi Germany, the NAACP and African-American leaders sensed an opportunity to launch an offensive against the conditions of segregation and inequality in the United States. The "prize" they sought was not civil rights, but human rights. Only the human rights lexicon, shaped by the Holocaust and articulated by the United Nations, contained the language and the moral power to address not only the political and legal inequality but also the education, health care, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community. The NAACP understood this and wielded its influence and resources to take its human rights agenda before the United Nations. But the onset of the Cold War and rising anti-communism allowed powerful southerners to cast those rights as Soviet-inspired and a threat to the American "ways of life." Enemies and friends excoriated the movement, and the NAACP retreated to a narrow civil rights agenda that was easier to maintain politically. Thus the Civil Rights Movement was launched with neither the language nor the mission it needed to truly achieve black equality. Carol Anderson is the recipient of major grants from the Ford Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, and numerous awards for excellence in teaching. Her scholarly interests are 20th century American, African-American, and diplomatic history, and the impact of the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy on the struggle for black equality in particular. Her publications include "From Hope to Disillusion published in Diplomatic History and reprinted in The African-American Voice in U.S. Foreign Policy.

30 review for Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955

  1. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    I thought I knew Eleanor Roosevelt, but what did I know? Nothing. This is the immensely detailed and extraordinarily well footnoted and quite horrifying story of the U.S. betrayal of the ideals behind the U.N. -- if there ever were any. The primacy of the Dixiecrats demanding that there be no international agreement that could possibly interfere with Jim Crow or the constant lynchings as part of the real politik of the Democratic party remaining in power is well documented here, along with the p I thought I knew Eleanor Roosevelt, but what did I know? Nothing. This is the immensely detailed and extraordinarily well footnoted and quite horrifying story of the U.S. betrayal of the ideals behind the U.N. -- if there ever were any. The primacy of the Dixiecrats demanding that there be no international agreement that could possibly interfere with Jim Crow or the constant lynchings as part of the real politik of the Democratic party remaining in power is well documented here, along with the painful infighting with the NAACP (Du Bois and White primarily) and between the NAACP and the various incarnations of the NNC, CRC, AAC in all of its various levels of cooptation by the Communist Party. Essentially this is the story of how the NAACP abandoned the fight for human rights, took its 'eye off the prize' as it became 'entangled' in Democratic politics and facing anti-communist witch-hunts. I love the distinction between civil rights -- that 'only speak to the overt political and legal discrimination that African Americans faced' -- and human rights, with 'the language and philosophical power to address not only the political and legal inequalities that African Americans endured, but also the educayion, health care, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community' [2]. An important distinction, and I agree with Anderson that it is the second that we need to fight for. She has unearthed some telling quotes -- this from President Truman to a group of Black Democrats: I wish to make clear that I am not appealing for social equality for the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that, and the highest type of Negro leaders say quite frankly that they prefer the society of their own people. Negroes want justice, not social equality' [2] In all of the cold-war jockeying around the UN's formation, the US succeeded in defining minority as only a group wishing to secede from their country and with a distinct culture or language -- thus they argued that 'there probably are no national minorities in the United States' [75]. Eleanoer Roosevelt consistently put the party before African American rights, despite her place on the board of the NAACP, and consistently supported the Dixiecrat positions in every instance with a statecraft and political ability that was quite breathtaking. I had no idea she was so brilliant at political manouvering, but sadly it was certainly for evil. Of course, given her loyalties she didn't have much choice. In the words of George Kennan on the Declaration of Human Rights: The staff has great misgivings as to the wisdom of the Executive branch negotiating declarations of this nature setting forth ideals and principles which we cannot be sure of being able to observe in the future, and which are in any case of dubious universal validity. It seems to us that this invites charges of hypocrisy against us' [132]. I had no idea that the Dixiecrats and their allies were so incensed and afraid of the possibility that there could exist an international organisation such as the UN with any ability--even if simply moral--to speak or act against Jim Crow (or other injustices within the U.S.), that they tried to push through legislation making it nearly impossible for any international treaties to be signed. The Bickers amendment would 'require all treaties and executive agreements first to be ratified by the 2/3 of the U.S. Senate, then by both houses of Congress with enabling legislation, and finally...by all 48 state legislatures' [220]. Crazy, right? No treaty or executive agreement would ever happen ever again, and this almost passed. Eisenhower managed to stop it, but by the skin of his teeth really. As part of this effort, however, he withdrew his support from things such as the Genocide Convention. Before he did so, while still trying fight the Bickers amendment, the author of the convention had argued that the South didn't really have anything to worry about because 'genocide occurred only when an intent existed to destroy an entire group, and those who committed lynchings lacked this requisite motivation'. He explained further that 'the basic policy of the South is not to destroy the Negro but to preserve that race on a different level of existence' [228]. There is one good story in here, of Reverend Carey chosen to be a token African American on the delegation as a sop given he worked alongside the powerful and bitterly racist James Byrnes. He refused to do as he was told and voted to approve the Genocide convention, causing immense consternation and anger and upset in the U.s. camp. That was a happy day. Of course they had no timetable for ratification... There are more betrayals -- Max Yergan the worst, and I wonder how long he was in the pay of the government? But above all this is a lesson in strategy, what the long-term prize needs to be.

  2. 4 out of 5

    ashwini

    Carol Anderson makes the compelling case that the Civil Rights Movement's great failure was abandoning the human rights framework on which it was based. Due to many factors, but especially the Cold War and the lingering effects of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement abandoned economic and social rights struggles. This abandonment led to a plateau in progress, and today, the struggles of people of color are very much within the realm of violations of economic and social rights. For real change Carol Anderson makes the compelling case that the Civil Rights Movement's great failure was abandoning the human rights framework on which it was based. Due to many factors, but especially the Cold War and the lingering effects of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement abandoned economic and social rights struggles. This abandonment led to a plateau in progress, and today, the struggles of people of color are very much within the realm of violations of economic and social rights. For real change to occur, we need to look beyond civil rights, to human rights.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    compelling read. meticulously researched. rich in qualitative data. A reminder that we focus on the fight for human rights abroad, much work is to be done at home.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Luke

    Eye-opening perspective on the creation of the UN and Commission on Human Rights, focused on the NAACP and related national civil rights groups' fight to (and retreat from) address Jim Crow violence and disenfranchisement as a human rights failure, a genocide, a parallel to the plight of colonized people globally. Casts a hollowing glare at the US vs USSR manipulations of UNCHR goals to claim superiority on whatever narrow form of human rights and non-intervention wouldn't expose liability for t Eye-opening perspective on the creation of the UN and Commission on Human Rights, focused on the NAACP and related national civil rights groups' fight to (and retreat from) address Jim Crow violence and disenfranchisement as a human rights failure, a genocide, a parallel to the plight of colonized people globally. Casts a hollowing glare at the US vs USSR manipulations of UNCHR goals to claim superiority on whatever narrow form of human rights and non-intervention wouldn't expose liability for their documented internal failures. Damning quotes of Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt on placating the Dixiecrats from any federal oversight of lynching. Ultimately the NAACP's fear of any link to communism leads them to merely seek the most American of shallow equality.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Frank

    An eye opening explanation of how the Cold War and fear of communism hampered efforts to achieve basic human rights for African Americans after WWII. Those hurdles are still evident today. Only in American politics, could human rights be construed as anti-American.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Eve

    Great for understanding why we can't discuss human rights in U.S. governance. This is really detail-heavy, but the book overall is an excellent demonstration of the methods used to prevent minority progress. The parallels to current events are straight-up eerie.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brenda

    who knew eleanor roosevelt was such a disappointment??

  8. 4 out of 5

    Hanna

  9. 5 out of 5

    Joe

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    Juan Bustillo

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    Kim Drew

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    Ryan

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    Kari

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Murmello

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kate

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    Cheryl

  17. 5 out of 5

    Madison

  18. 4 out of 5

    Van Til

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lekisha R

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    Nicola

  22. 4 out of 5

    Fayzan Rab

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    Kelene

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Sternisha

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    Thomas Raymond

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    Brenda McCloud

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cristal

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alexandra Zaretsky

  29. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sara

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