Seventy years ago this month, on Dec. 17, 1951, the United Nations received a bold petition, delivered in two cities at once: Activist William Patterson presented the document to the U.N. assembly in Paris, while his comrade Paul Robeson, the famous actor and singer, did the same at the U.N. offices in New York. W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading Black intellectual, was among the petition’s signatories.
The group was accusing the United States of genocide — specifically, genocide against Black people.
The word “genocide” was only seven years old. It had been coined during World War II in a book about Nazi atrocities, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, though no nation had yet been formally convicted of perpetrating a genocide.
The 240-page petition, “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People,” was meant to be sensational. America had been instrumental in prosecuting the Nazis at Nuremberg, and now its own citizens were turning the lens back on the U.S. in the most horrifying, accusatory terms.
Instead, mainstream media largely ignored it. The New York Times and Washington Post mentioned the petition in brief stories buried in the back pages. The Chicago Tribune condemned it for “shameful lies.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish jurist who had coined the term “genocide,” publicly disagreed with the whole basis of the petition, saying it confused genocide with discrimination.
The drafters of the document hadn’t expected it to go anywhere; they knew the U.S. had too much power at the U.N. for the petition to be taken up. They had written it less as a formal charge than as a presentation of an allegation, loosely written in the model of a legal brief. They hoped, though didn’t expect, that the General Assembly, Commission on Human Rights or another party at the U.N. might take up the issue for deliberation. That never happened.
But today, 70 years later, the document has a new resonance amid the patent injustices of police brutality that continue to occur and racial inequities in health care on display especially throughout the pandemic. “We Charge Genocide” explored these kinds of issues at length, making a compelling case for thinking about structural racism as genocide, which demands not only condemnation but also redress and repair. To consider the arguments in “We Charge Genocide,” drafted by some of the most notable figures in the midcentury civil rights movement, offers important insights into the current moment and how to move forward.
Two events set the stage for the Black genocide charge in 1951 — one international, and one domestic.
The first was close to a miracle. After two years of political haggling following Nazi atrocities, U.N. member states each agreed to relinquish a small piece of their sacrosanct sovereignty when the body passed the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This codified a legal definition of genocide, criminalizing group destruction and opening the door to try perpetrators in an international court of law. Since then, the convention has been used both to hold perpetrators of genocide accountable in places like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia and, importantly, to set up or pave the way for remediation mechanisms after it’s been established that genocide occurred.
The Convention defined genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” It also specified that these acts include not just killing but also attempted group destruction through “bodily or mental harm,” impeding reproduction, harsh living conditions and child removal.
Second, the Black civil rights movement gained momentum after World War II. Freedom struggles and racism became a focus of worldwide attention, and the newly established U.N., which included a Commission on Human Rights, provided a new, global platform for protest against racism in the U.S. Black activists used it to internationalize and broaden their movement, in part by reframing it in terms of human rights.
Two prior petitions preceded “We Charge Genocide.” In 1946, the National Negro Congress delivered an eight-page petition to the U.N. Secretary-General asking him to take action on the subjugation of Black Americans, particularly in the South, where 10 million Black people lived in deplorable conditions. The U.N., mired in politics, failed to act. But the petition had some success, particularly abroad, in drawing attention to the plight of Black Americans.
Seeing the potential of such petitions, the NAACP, frustrated by the U.S. government’s slow pace of racial reform, undertook a much more ambitious initiative. On Oct. 23, 1947, it presented an extensive, 95-page “Appeal to the World!” petition to the U.N. The statement, which garnered much more attention, lambasted the U.S. for denying a host of human rights to its Black minority population.
“We Charge Genocide,” a project of the Civil Rights Congress, followed in this tradition, but it was even more ambitious and inflammatory, explicitly situating its documentation of U.S. racism within the framework of genocide — a new kind of crime, freshly outlined by the U.N.
“We Charge Genocide” starts with killing: The petition documents hundreds of killings and other abuses, some involving police, which took place from 1945, when the U.N. was established, to 1951. It asserts that more than 10,000 Black people had been lynched or killed, often for something as small as “failure to say ‘sir’ or tip their hats.” Many more, it adds, suffered from “serious bodily and mental harm” from beatings, assaults and the terror caused by the constant threat of such attacks.
Direct violence was only one part of the charge. Another part was the systematic treatment of Black people within society. The petitioners were taking the minimalist language of the U.N. convention on genocide, about things like conditions of life, and giving it shape and form with real-world examples. The petition outline the harsh living conditions to which Black Americans were subject: lives diminished in terms of housing, medical care, education, segregation, job opportunities, sharecropping, incarceration, housing, poverty and voter suppression. As a result, the petition states, 30,000 extra Black people were dying each year, and Black Americans were living eight years less than white people. Officials from all three branches of the U.S. government, the petition alleges, were guilty of inciting, conspiring to commit or being complicit in such genocidal acts, with examples ranging from police violence to racist laws promulgated by members of Congress.
Proof of Black genocide, the petition concludes, “is everywhere in American life,” and as “the conscience of mankind,” the U.N. General Assembly should not stand by silently but should instead both condemn the U.S. and demand that the country take steps to stop the genocide and prevent its persistence.
The petition had 94 signatories, including family of victims. Some were with Robeson when he presented the petition to the U.N. in New York, including the widow of one of the “Martinsville Seven,” executed after being falsely accused of raping a white woman.
The petition was received by U.N. 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 take it forward.
Cold War politics were a large part of the reason why. The U.S. government — worried about bad PR during the Cold War — mounted a campaign to blunt any domestic and international impact it might have.
In 1951, the Red Scare was in full swing. The Soviet Union was nuclear; Mao had taken over China; war was raging in Korea; and Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading now-infamous hearings on the communist infiltration of U.S. Black nationalists. “We Charge Genocide” petitioners were among the targets. The government had already confiscated Robeson’s passport, which is why he presented the document in New York. It seized Patterson’s after he presented the petition in Paris.
The U.S. government launched a campaign to discredit the petition, fearing it would inflame tensions at home and impugn the country’s reputation abroad. The sometimes bombastic, communist overtones of the petition, as well as the communist associations of some of the petitioners, made it easy even for sympathetic Americans to see it in an anti-American, ideological light.
Eleanor Roosevelt gave a U.N. address defending the U.S in response to the document. In an interview, she emphasized Black progress while calling the genocide accusation “ridiculous.” The U.S. also enlisted more moderate Black luminaries to condemn the petition. Some, like NAACP leader Walter White, agreed to do so since they were wary of Patterson and wanted to distance the Black civil rights movement from communism.
America’s immense international clout also helped bury the issue. The architect of the idea of genocide, Lemkin, was still working tirelessly to achieve U.S. ratification of the U.N. Genocide Convention — which faced resistance, especially from Southern Democrats, precisely because they feared the U.S. would be accused of genocide against its Black population — and couldn’t afford to alienate the U.S.
Lemkin responded to the petition by publicly supporting the official U.S. view, emphasizing the improving situation of Black Americans while claiming the petition was a maneuver by “communist sympathizers” to divert attention from the genocide of “Soviet-subjugated people.” And so, in a moral failing of his otherwise distinguished career, Lemkin downplayed the long history of violence committed against Black Americans. “Genocide means annihilation and destruction,” he stated, “not merely discrimination.”
In fact, the arguments in the document — especially with the benefit of some distance from the Cold War anxieties of the time — look very compelling. While many may think that genocidal annihilation only looks like Nazi mass murder, the U.N. Genocide Convention clearly incorporates more nuanced forms of destruction than that. Lemkin dismissed the lynchings and other killings detailed in “We Charge Genocide” as “actions against individuals — not intended to destroy a race.” But the petition detailed how such violence was not just individual but deeply intertwined in the fabric of American society.
Perhaps most importantly, it made the case that the systemic and structural nature of racism against Black people in the U.S. was what made it genocide, a novel legal argument to expand the understanding of genocide that turned out to be ahead of its time.
In recent years, some genocide scholars have begun to think in terms of “structural genocide.” This sort of understanding could also be applied to, for example, the Uyghur people in China, where the group faces a sort of social death.
Ironically, Lemkin’s own early scholarship provided an important foundation for this view of genocide. When he coined the term “genocide” in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin defined it as a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups.” This process, Lemkin stated, had two phases: “one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed groups; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” Such group destruction was carried out not just by killing but by political, social, cultural, economic, biological, religious, moral and physical means that crushed the “spirit” of the victim group. This is exactly the sort of interwoven tapestry of group diminishment “We Charge Genocide” sought to establish as constituting the genocide of Black Americans.
“Genocide” seems — and is — hugely divisive, and it’s unlikely that the U.N. would formally accuse its wealthiest member of the crime, even in the past. But the petitioners weren’t wrong to situate Black American history in that bleak context, and doing so gives us — maybe surprisingly — some routes forward.
The U.N. remediation guidelines for mass human rights violations like genocide have some clear goals. These include safeguarding basic human rights of the offended group, investigating abuses and providing redress.
What might such remedy look like? Monetary payment is an obvious form of compensation, and an establishment of genocide can help advance current discussions around such reparations. Efforts to remedy historical injustices in other parts of the world offer other examples — education, health services, criminal trials, structural reforms — that have also been implemented in response to genocide. And even in the face of only accusations, let alone convictions, of genocide, truth-seeking commissions have been held to take seriously the charge and determine and acknowledge the extent of abuse.
As the U.S. reckons with how to address its racial injustices, past and present, such examples of remedy for mass human rights violations give us a framework to think about how to do it justly and with full acknowledgment of the wrongs committed.