African Americans - The united nations petition




At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in the autumn of 1944, delegates planned the foundations of a postwar international organization that would reprise the work of the League of Nations. Conferees rejected a racial and national equality clause that the Chinese government had put forward but failed to energetically defend. In the early years of the United Nations, efforts were made to insert ethnic and linguistic rights into the UN Charter and other central documents. Cold War tensions entered the deliberations of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in the late 1940s, as many sovereign states proved reluctant to permit international oversight of their treatment of national minorities.

For African Americans in particular the era reflected a rising interest in social science and world affairs and the secularization of black protest that moved it away from philanthropic church control. Black opinion widely supported a pluralist United Nations that would counter the "Anglo-American" conception of a postwar peace elaborated by Winston Churchill in his Fulton, Missouri, "Iron Curtain" speech. While no blacks attended the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, Walter White, secretary of the NAACP; W. E. B. Du Bois, the NAACP's director of special research; and Mary McLeod Bethune, of the National Council of Negro Women, were present as observers. Their attendance resulted from extensive organizing activities by black nongovernmental organizations to formulate an agenda for international activism. The black Republican Perry Howard urged blacks to send telegrams to their congressional representatives to demand that the UN Charter protect minority rights. Despite setbacks, the UN continued to be seen as a potentially useful instrument in checking Western abuses of national minorities and colonial subjects. In 1948 the chair of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP urged UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie to reject the University of Maryland's offer to house the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Segregation at the institution, including its college of agriculture, would inconvenience FAO personnel from non-European countries.

Attempts in 1945 to influence the United Nations to protect minority rights were among the first of several efforts. Backed by labor, professional, fraternal, and veterans' associations, the National Negro Congress drafted a petition to the United Nations in mid-1946. It was formulated at the same time that similar petitions were being presented by Indonesians and the Jewish diaspora, and shortly before the General Assembly voted to censure South Africa for its treatment of its East Indian resident population. Encouraged by parallel international events, the NAACP followed suit with its own petition in 1947. The NAACP asked the UN Commission on Human Rights to investigate racial discrimination in the United States. Supported by hundreds of black organizations across the political spectrum, and by African and Caribbean nationalists and labor federations overseas, the appeal was also viewed favorably by India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Belgium, Haiti, Norway, China (Formosa), and the USSR, which introduced the petition in October 1947. Despite its popularity with the black public in the United States and international endorsement, the petition died in the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Pressure applied on the United Nations by the United States, the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, then a UNESCO commissioner, and misgivings among certain NAACP officials about Soviet support of the appeal, led to its demise.

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