Category Archives: Black History

“All Lives Don’t Matter” by Renaissance


Written in response to the “All Lives Matter” slogan and belief that has been a tactic of invalidation of the Human Rights and Civil Rights struggle, which the #BlackLivesMatter Movement embodies, this piece rips into the history of legislation, constitutional amendments, the rise of the prison industrial complex, and the impact these racialized systems of oppression, socially and legally reinforced, and how they harm People of Color.

The twisted and disgusting perversion of my declaring that my life has value and that I deserve respect merely by the fact that I am a human being, into something that is a denial of anyone else’s life having value and deserving respect is purely idiocy and ignorance, and extreme expression of #WhiteFragility and privilege. This system does not treat people all the same and the data that proves this is astounding, but one need only look at the laws and how they have been applied to perceive that this system is racist at its core

Good Protester, Bad Protester and the Monopoly on Violence

“I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use.”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Violence is a term that can at times be difficult to define because of what may in any given situation constitute as violence. On the one hand, violence is easily interpreted as physical harm, usually intended by one person to inflict damage to another person’s body or property. On the other hand, violence may also be interpreted in spiritual, intellectual, or emotional terms. Sexism and patriarchy can and do perpetuate violence upon women and people of other genders when they are marginalized, harassed, or have their potentials limited by the power structure that restrains or diminishes their privacy, liberty, and dignity. Racism is a system of power monopolization that imposes a synthetic inferiority upon a group of people arbitrarily based on the color of their skin. In the United States, the people who have practiced racism have caused a tremendous amount of both physical and psychological harm to many, if not most people who cannot be identified as white.  The state and its subsidiary institutions of the military and police maintain a relative monopoly on violence, which has been used to suppress people and the assertion of their human rights both abroad and domestically. Notwithstanding that monopoly on violence, Civil Rights and Black Power activists in the twentieth century continued to find ways of challenging and maintaining opposition to a system they perceived as discriminatory, disenfranchising, and dehumanizing. The progenitors of the different methods of challenging injustice were often in competition with one another, and while a prescriptive struggle of how to best challenge the racist system and what a good protester or activist was did occur, both the self-defense and the nonviolent methods assisted each other helping to improve social and political conditions for people of color in the United States.

By the mid-twentieth century and the Civil Rights Era, a system of racism had been imposed upon the society of the United States for two centuries. The ‘founding fathers’ wrote racism into the U.S. Constitution and it was ratified in 1789 by the U.S. Congress:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.[1]

Any human being that was “bound to service,” a creative method to define a slave without specifically stating slave, or who was a tax paying “Indian,” was defined in the U.S. Constitution as not having the full value, dignity, respect, or rights of a human being. Underlying what has become known as the “Three-Fifths Clause,” is an ideological belief in the superiority of people who can be classified and categorized as white people. One thing the clause did acknowledge was that the people held in service and those who were called Indians were “Persons” according to law. However, the overall effect of the clause was that it legally imposed a synthetic inferiority upon a group of people.

During the nineteenth century, even though the United States was a slave society, not all black people were slaves. However, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, declared that no black person was a citizen of the U.S. and that black people “were of an inferior order” and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[2] After the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for a crime,” and the Fourteenth Amendment granted full citizenship to “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States.” The 14th Amendment effectively overturned the Dred Scott decision however culture and ideologies sometimes do not shift as quickly as the law does. As black people began to assert their civil liberties and compete with white people in the economy and in politics, there was a major push-back as a campaign of terror emerged with the Ku Klux Klan and a system of laws designed to maintain blood and social purity known today as the Black Codes, which became Jim Crow. Lynching, the non-legal vigilante assassination of individuals by a mob taking the law into their own hands that was used as a tactic used to terrorize people into submission became prolific during this period.

Lynching by State 1900 to 1931[3]

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established in 1909 was one of the primary organizations active throughout the Civil Rights Era. The NAACP had for the most part been a non-violent direct action organization that focused primarily on advocacy and litigation, but was instrumental in the Anti-Lynching Campaign in the 1920s and 30s. Between 1880 and 1930, “at least 2,462 African-American men, women and children met their deaths in the grasp of southern mob.”[4] It was primarily used as a tactic to control black people in the South, but some white people are reported to have also been lynched.  Lynching was never technically outlawed, but there were two major bills that brought a lot of attention to the problem. The first was the Anti-Lynching Bill introduced by Congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918, but it was stopped from being adopted into law because it led to a filibuster.[5] The second was the Costigan-Wagner Bill drafted by Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan in 1934, but it was defeated in Congress by Southern congressmen as well.[6] The NAACP advocated for both pieces of legislation and did assist in bringing this crime to the nation’s attention.

However, what the NAACP is perhaps most known for is Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that overturned the ruling in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that stated separate but equal accommodations for white people and black people was Constitutional. This was a major step in the long struggle to dismantle the system of Jim Crow, but like the amendments after the Civil War the law often changes faster than public opinion and culture. The first attempt to desegregate the public school system would not occur for another three years, in 1957 with the Little Rock Nine. In September of 1957 Minnijean Brown, Terrance Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls confronted a mob of citizens hurling insults and stones at them, police, and the National Guard of Arkansas by the order of Governor Orval Faubus as they attempted to enter Central High School. None of the nine students retaliated they simply trudged through the abuse. They were hand-picked and prepared to face this treatment by the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Daisy Bates. Television had been invented by this time and many of the people in the United States who had quickly assimilated the new invention into their homes lives watched these events unfold. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who had won the Brown v. Board case, and a team of NAACP lawyers won an injunction against Faubus’s use of the National Guard to prevent the integration of Central High School in the federal district court.[7]

The events at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas were not dissimilar from what Autherine Lucy experienced when she enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1956, or when James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi (Old Miss) in 1962. At the University of Alabama, a mob of white people chased Lucy around the school lobbing insults, food, and stones at her. At the University of Mississippi a riot erupted in response to Meredith’s enrollment at which point the National Guard had to be federalized by President John F. Kennedy to quell the violence. In all three instances, people of color were simply attempting to exercise their rights as citizens of the United States, as was guaranteed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and Brown v. Board of Education. In all the situations their peaceful actions were met with brutality and violence. And in all three cases, the victims were blamed for the violence.

There are and were philosophical, moral, and legal imperatives and justifications, which either permitted or prescribed self-defense. One of the earlier advocates for self-defense during the Civil Rights Era was Robert F. Williams, the president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Williams believed that, “[i]t has always been an accepted right of Americans, as the history of our Western states proves, that where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must, act in self-defense against lawless violence.”[8] Williams did not come to this conclusion lightly. He and his community had been challenging Jim Crow Segregation in the south and one example he recounts is about a swimming that was paid for by taxes but denied black people entrance or a reasonable alternative. The black people Monroe had negotiated for a pool for people of color with the town 1957 and waited for the officials to follow through on a promise they perhaps never intended to keep. So in 1961, community members decided to picket the white only swimming pool and a few days later people started shooting guns at them to terrorize and scare them off. Williams says that the police chief was right there and did nothing to protect the peaceful protesters. Furthermore, neither the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would intervene.

Williams also recounts attempts upon his life, which was not unheard of for a Civil Rights activists around that time. Medgar Evers, the president of the NAACP chapter of Jackson Mississippi was shot dead as he returned home to his family June 12, 1963. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were tortured and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the Freedom Summer project June 21, 1964. Williams could not have known of these murders yet, but he would have been well aware of the monopoly on violence the state had. And since no one would come to his or his community’s aid, being a war veteran, he chose to arm himself in self-defense, and it worked. A crowd of “two or three thousand people” intent on killing him and the people with him were held at bay because Williams and another man with him displayed their weapons and expressed their intent to use them in self-defense.[9] Williams would later note, “[w]hen an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise.”[10] Neither Williams, nor any of his people were harmed that day.

Williams’s belief in self-defense and his willingness to follow through and prove his conviction with his actions would create a rift between he and the national headquarters of the NAACP, and he and other Civil Rights leaders. In 1959 Williams witness a corrupt trial which upheld injustice instead of instituting justice as was common of the time. In 1955 a fourteen year old boy from Chicago named Emmitt Till was visiting his family in Money, Mississippi when late one night he was abducted by a group of men, brutally tortured, beaten, and murdered. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury and shortly after they sold their confession to a magazine bragging about their actions with impunity because of the “Double Jeopardy” clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Williams no longer had any hope in the DOJ, in the police, or the federal government because there were no protections for black people in Monroe. Williams was quoted at the end of the trial as saying, “[t]his demonstration today shows that the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”[11] This represented a dramatic shift from the Anti-Lynching Campaign of the 20s and 30s and the bills the NAACP supported that never made it through Congress, and from the litigation method of 1954 utilized in Brown v. Board of Education. More importantly, people throughout the nation knew of this because Williams’s “statement was reprinted all over the United States,” creating an image and reputation that the national headquarters of the NAACP would distance itself from.[12]

Roy Wilkins, the president of the national office of the NAACP suspended Williams in May of 1959, as a battle of good protester—bad protester began. The general consensus of the NAACP national office and many of its members nationally was that Williams’s words and actions had tainted the public image of the organization, as peaceful and non-violent, and being opposed to lynching. Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP who assisted the Little Rock Nine was reported stating; “she could not endorse violence even though her home had been bombed, and shot at and her life threatened during the school crisis in Little Rock.”[13] Moreover, the national committee on branches of the NAACP is reported to have stated that Williams’s statement was “contrary to the basic NAACP policy” and “endangers the effectiveness of the NAACP especially in the South. It can be used by segregationist to spread the false impression that the NAACP supports lynching and mob violence.”[14]

However, not everyone in the NAACP or in the black community was opposed to the words and actions of Williams. In opposition to the national office, Ora Mobley wrote:

I hope in this way something positive will come out of the general sentiment in his [Robert Williams] favor and the indignation over his suspension. Just consider how many self-seeking, Uncle Tom and timid leaders we have had and continue to have in our organizations in this country. Have you ever heard of one of them being brought up on trial and removed from office? Or is that a penalty reserved only for Negro leaders whose record is one of self-sacrifice, militancy, and courage? (And all this where it counts—in one of the most KKK-ridden counties in the South.)[15]

There was more going on in people’s minds than simply what a good protester or activist was. They were also concerned about why particular people seemed to have been protected and questioned the intentions of those who were being protected. This is evinced by Mobley highlighting “Uncle Tom[s],” a term used to refer to someone who is a traitor to their community, especially one who profits or benefits from allowing or propagating harms to that community. Williams makes it very clear that the national office of the NAACP did not get involved in the events of Monroe, North Carolina until his statement was distributed nationally, and when they did get involved, Roy Wilkins suspended him. Nonetheless, by November 21 of 1959 Williams was unanimously reelected to serve as president of the Monroe chapter, of which he remarked, “[t]he people have proven to me that my judgment is trusted and that they are satisfied with the way the affairs of the branch have been handled in the past.”[16] The national office of the NAACP and many other members nationally were more concerned with respectability politics and the public image of a good protester or activist, then actually providing the protections the people most effected believed they needed. The reinstatement of Williams proved to be an effective move for both the community and the nonviolent direct action in Monroe that would follow in 1960. Williams reports that Monroe was the “thirteenth town in North Carolina to start sit-in demonstrations,” and further, that “[t]here was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South.”[17] Williams was proving through his actions that self-defense and nonviolent direct action “could be successfully combined.”[18]

Robert F. Williams was not the only activist in the South during the Civil Rights Era who found it useful to act in self-defense against brutality and the monopoly on violence. Anne Moody, a civil rights activist and organizer working for CORE in Mississippi on voter registration in the early 1960s also confronted similar problems. Mississippi was a dangerous place to advocate for equal citizenship because much of the state was rural and most of the organizing occurred in the rural parts where most of the black people lived and worked, many on plantations. Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were all murdered in Mississippi while engaged in civil rights activities in the 1960s. Shortly after Emmitt Till was murdered Mrs. Burke, one of the women Moody worked for before she became an activist, argued that Emmitt Till, “was killed because he got out of his place,” attempting to justify the monopoly on violence.[19] A synthetic inferiority or not, the message was clear for Moody, “[I could be] killed just because I was black.”[20]

Moody was at the NAACP rally that Evers was shot returning home from on June 11, 1963.[21] So, when a threat was made on her and her comrades’ lives while working in Canton, Mississippi they believed it. Afterward, given that this was not the first attempt and because the police were complicit, if not also involved in many of the murders, a group of men decided to  form “a group to protect us,” as Moody recalls.[22] Moody continues on to write:

they followed us around everywhere we went, walking with us as if they were bulletproof. They even spread a rumor that the Freedom House was protected by armed men. We were still a little up tight and afraid to sleep at night, but after a while, when the whites didn’t come back, we figured the rumors worked.[23]

Again, it was the threat of self-defense that warded off the potential violence against people of color who were stridently working to achieve full citizenship in the United States. Moody notes an important transition in CORE’s effectiveness in organizing the rural community to register to vote in Canton after the defensive group emerged. The “Negro participation had dropped off to almost nothing,”[24] after five youth were shot after a rally, but after the people started standing up for themselves, “every Negro church in the county was opened for workshops.”[25]

Robert F. Williams was neither the only person to use the methods of self-defense, nor the only one to see that self-defense methods benefited the nonviolent activism the community was engaged in. However, because of the organization he was affiliated with and the level of attention his actions and words achieved made him a target of disparagement and prescription. The NAACP had an image to maintain and particular goals they wanted to achieve and did not believe that self-defense was going to further those objectives. Conversely, the people who were the victims of Klan or other mob violence, complicit police departments and court systems, and no other recourse for the protection of their lives disagreed.

However, when marginalized and oppressed people have opposed the injustices of racism in the United States, they have often been labeled ‘criminals,’ as if they were doing something wrong, or harmful. Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested for attempting to register to vote in in 1962. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested thirty times for his involvement in nonviolent direct actions. Bobby Seale, the Chairman of the Black Panther Party was arrested for a speech he made at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was purported to be in violation of the Anti-Riot Act of 1968. Seale was later acquitted of the charge of inciting to riot. Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party was imprisoned in 1973 for a series of charges, and of which all but one she was acquitted. Robert F. Williams was arrested in 1960 while engaged with the sit-ins and compelled to serve thirty days on a chain gang. And countless other citizens were arrested for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and to protest injustices. Thus, it seems that it was a crime to be an activist and an agitator during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras.

Civil Rights activists were often portrayed as being the initiators of violence regardless of whether their methods were defined as self-defense or nonviolence. The mere fact that they were seeking to alter the economic, social, and political conditions of the society in the United States to be more just and equitable for people of color was viewed as a form of violence against the status quo. The state and many white citizens who held to a racist ideology responded to the challenge of the activists with physical, psychological, and economic violence while prescribing the times, places, and methods that change would and should occur. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to these types of prescriptions in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I have reached the almost regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.[26]

This letter was written in Birmingham, Alabama during Project Confrontation in 1963 in response to a public message of disapproval from some white clergy members. During Project C, Bull Conner, in full measure of the monopoly on violence, unleased police dogs and fire hoses upon the nonviolent demonstrators to suppress their struggle against segregation in the South. It was brutal and violent and many people were hurt, but like the Freedom Riders in 1961, the activists and demonstrators did not initiate the violence. King was most certainly capitalizing on the violence to “dramatize” the deplorable conditions black people were suffering.[27] This passage nonetheless reveals the desperation many people of color in the Civil Rights era felt.

It was that desperation which motivated people to subject themselves to violence to bring attention to their conditions or to defend themselves against an unjust and racist system. King argued in 1963 that the people had been waiting long enough to be granted full citizenship, the Emancipation Proclamation was made in 1863, and the black people of the United States had been waiting one hundred years for an end to segregation and the right to vote. Moody however provided a very clear analysis of the people’s feeling and the situation they were in when she wrote:

We sit back and say that we want Freedom. We believe that all men are created equal. Some of us even believe we are free just because our constitution guarantees us certain ‘inalienable’ rights. There are the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments that make us citizens and give us the right to vote. If you are depending on the writing on the wall to free you, you better forget it, it’s been there a long time. We’ve gotta be the ones to give it meaning. Some believe that once we get enough nerve, all we gotta do is walk up to Mr. Charlie and say ‘Man, I want my freedom.’ Do you think that Mr. Charlie is going to dish it out to you on a silver platter?[28] 

This was a call to action born of desperation and while Moody may have been a nonviolent activist, and one who did not believe violent revolution was possible, she was nonetheless not diametrically opposed to self-defense. Many activists and protesters found that when they began to challenge the system, the system used all of its means to suppress the assertion of their rights. And in their desperation, some turned to self-defense because “Mr. Charlie” was not simply going to serve them their freedom on a “silver platter,” and in fact intended to lynch them instead. Surprisingly, and against what many of the entrenched old guard activists thought, the philosophy of self-defense did not hurt the movement as much as it did to assist the objectives of the people. Yet, what stands out most clearly in Civil Rights and Black Power eras is that every group besides black people an other people of color was permitted to employ violence as a means to achieve their objectives.

[1] United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 2. 1789

[2] “The Dred Scott Decision.” Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Research. 2014.

[3] “Lynchings by states and counties in the United States, 1900-1931.” Library of Congress. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[4] “History of Lynching in the United States.” University of Massachusetts Amherst. Date Accessed December 14, 2015.  

[5] “NAACP HISTORY: ANTI-LYNCHING BILL.” NAACP. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[6] “NAACP HISTORY: COSTIGAN WAGNER BILL.” NAACP. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[7] “Little Rock School Desegregation (1957).” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[8] Robert F. Williams. Negroes with Guns. (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 3.

[9] Ibid., 9-10.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 26-29.

[13] “Court Fight Looms Over Bob Williams.” The New York Age (New York, New York), July 25, 1959. Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[14] “NAACP Leader is Suspended.” Statesville Record & Landmark (Statesville, North Carolina), June 9, 1959. Accessed from on December 15, 2015.  

[15] Mobely, Ora. “NAACP vs Williams.” The New York Age. (New York, New York), July 11, 1959.  Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[16] “’Meet Violence With Violence’ Advocate Back As NAACP Head.” New York Age (New York, New York), November 21, 1959.  Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[17] Robert F. Williams. Negroes with Guns. (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 30-31.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Anne Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1968), 132.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 302-303.

[22] Ibid., 331.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 325.

[25] Ibid., 332.

[26] Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 1963), 97.

[27] Ibid., 89.

[28] Anne Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1968), 317.

Thoughts on Nonviolent Direct Action

Bernard LaFayette, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Director in Selma, Alabama leading up to the infamous Bloody Sunday and eventually the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was a person with a simply designed two-winged program of voter registration and nonviolence. Yet, while the idea of the program was simple, this is not to be interpreted as the objectives of either wing being simple, but rather, to imply that both components were necessary and that the objectives and strategies were focused to ensure their goals were achieved.  If the strategies would have been both nonviolent and violent at any given time during the protracted struggle in Selma; then it would have convoluted the message about which party was guilty of wrong-doing. It would also potentially not have garnered the sympathy and support of the majority, which they believed was necessary to influence the federal government to stand in opposition of state authority and abuses. The activists could have also focused on the police brutality and the state sanctioned violence that resulted from their struggles for equal citizenship, and they had claim to it because state troopers had killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, but it would have distracted attention from their primary objective, which was justice for all and equal citizenship. Bernard LaFayette and SNCC, with the assistance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., maintained a simple program acutely focused because they believed it was the best strategy to achieve their objectives.

Writing about both the violence that is used against people and the nonviolent response to it and why it is important, LaFayette states: “One of the reasons people attack you is that they have already reduced your humanity and view you as an object. Looking directly at an attacker, eye to eye, reinforces the idea that you are a human being and that he or she, too, is a human being with choices” (LaFayette, “In Peace and Freedom” 75). It is no simple task to stand still and non-combative or defensive while another is causing serious bodily harm and potentially death to you, it requires both philosophy and practice. The philosophy is what grounds the motivation to respond to violence in such a manner and here LaFayette is identifying two very important characteristics of why nonviolence is important. First, all people are human and part of one moral community who deserve to be treated as part of that community and as a human; this is true for both the attacked and the attacker. Second, is that we all as humans and members of the moral community have choices we can and must make, choices that we are morally responsible for. Nonviolent direct action in response to violence and unjust behaviors explicitly denies the perceived reduction of a human to an object, what Dr. King called, “to thingify” a person, and it maintains that the reduction is a fallacy. Thus, nonviolence asserts the humanity of the person who practices it and for a people who had almost continuously been denied their humanity, this was a powerful and direct challenge to a culture and a society that sought to maintain that reduction to an object. The philosophy founded the practice, and the practice reinforced the belief in the people who learned the philosophy strengthening the community as the philosophy was spread.

It was the displaying of the lack of acceptance by the white population of full participation within this moral community of the black population, in direct contradiction of the moral principles entailed within the US Constitution, which most Americans in the early 1960s believed in, that swayed the federal government to step in to guarantee full participation and citizenship to those denied. This was the objective of the entire project in Selma and violence on the part of those denied full participation in the moral community, would have clouded the message that they were moral members of the community who deserved equal protection. If the teachers who marched to the registrar’s office when barred access to the building and Sheriff Jim Clark forcefully ejected the teachers, had instead forced their way into the building, the fact that they were being denied their right to vote would have been lost under the reports of their ‘uncivilized’ behavior. However, they made three peaceful attempts to enter the registrar’s office and were willing to receive the unjust abuse from the sheriff and his officers to reveal the state sanctioned denial to full participation within in the moral community. This demonstration by members of the community and SNCC, asserted their humanity, respected the humanity of those who treated them unjustly, and garnered the moral support of both the national and international moral community. It was the swaying of the majority of the moral community that provided the eventual victory they were after in Selma, and that was the strategy from the beginning. They could very well have focused their attention on police brutality, instead of the right to vote and full participation in the moral community, but ending police brutality and not gaining the right to full participation would not have achieved their goals. Furthermore, the police brutality the people were suffering was addressed by exposing it during their continued pressure to achieve their primary objective, so they did not need to make it their primary focus.

When seeking to change an unjust system, it is vitally important to select an issue that will achieve multiple objectives simultaneously and that will reap the broadest breadth of change possible. The only two resources that activists have are time and space and both are too valuable to waste. It is also essential to select a strategy that compliments the objectives the people want to achieve. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek” (King, “Why We Can’t Wait” 110).

Hitler Becomes Useful, When the United States is Charged with Genocide

“THE RESPONSIBILITY of being the first in history to charge the government of the United States of America with the crime of genocide is not one your petitioners takes lightly. The responsibility is particularly grave when citizens must charge their own government with mass murder of its own nationals, with institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of the Negro people in the United States on a basis of “race,” a crime abhorred by mankind and prohibited by the conscience of the world as expressed in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948.”

William L. Patterson, We Charge Genocide, 1951[i]

The actions of the German Nazis, especially as they pertain to the concentration camps and the extermination of the Jews during World War II became the touchstone by which the actions of other people or groups were evaluated in terms of Human Rights violations. The Nazis became a reference point because one of the major results of WWII was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948 to hold individuals and governments responsible in international court for atrocious acts against humanity.[ii] In the same year, the Genocide Convention defined genocide as an international delict, with a definition of genocide, and relevant punishments for the guilty parties.[iii] Based on the Genocide Convention, William L. Patterson drafted and submitted a petition to the United Nations in 1951 titled We Charge Genocide, indicting the United States (US) government for its treatment and the mass murder of the African American population. Patterson compared the Nazis of Germany and Hitler to the US government and the citizens of the US to argue that the Human Rights violations against African Americans were equitable to the Jews and should be held accountable by the authority of the United Nations and punished under international law.

In the 1950s when We Charge Genocide was submitted to the U. N. many of the states within the US had Jim Crow laws that legally instituted segregation in employment, education, residence, transportation, hospitalization, and so forth, on the basis of race and relegated African Americans to an inferior position in society. In addition to this, the configuration of some state laws stood in contrast to the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guaranteed the right of citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The state laws in conjunction with the actions of extralegal organizations such as, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK),[iv] deprived many African Americans of their right to vote, and thus barred them from participating in the democratic process.[v] Comparable to the Nuremberg Laws (1935), the Jim Crow laws were depriving a particular group of US citizens their Civil Rights.[vi] Often times enforcing these deprivations with economic, legal, physical, and psychological sanctions, many of which were upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States as permissible. For example, lynching was still permissible in many states, i.e., the hanging of African American people, whether legal or extralegal. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was waging a major Anti-Lynching campaign to convince the US Congress and or the Supreme Court to criminalize the act, but at the time of this petition, the campaign had not done so yet.[vii]

Furthermore, the United States had just weathered the Great Depression—when upwards of 24% of the US population was unemployed—and World War II, both of which divided the country along racial, ethnic, political and economic lines. The Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi war criminals were made internationally known, which set the stage to ask questions about Jim Crow and segregation, and their relation to the Genocide Convention and international law. After 1945 however, the Cold War between the United States and Union of Social Soviets Republics (USSR) in particular and between Democracy and Communism more generally, began. Many of the people, whom were not in support of the status quo within the United States, were perceived by those in the government of the US to be enemies of the state. This is the social and political climate that Patterson wrote and submitted We Charge Genocide to the United Nations in.

Patterson, with the help of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress, collected and analyzed hundreds of cases of brutality and injustice wrought against the African American population in the US between 1945 and 1951.[viii] Then Patterson used the language and the legal framework of the Genocide Convention to present an argument for the justification of the United Nations holding the United States responsible and accountable for genocide. As cited in We Charge Genocide from the Genocide Convention of the United Nations in 1948, genocide was defined as:

‘In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’

Article III:

‘The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.’[ix]

Of particular interest to Patterson was the clause “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” because it identified that motivation to destroy members of a group for their affiliation with that group, was more important than the successful destruction of that particular group, in whole or in part, at least in the terms of an act or series of acts qualifying as genocide. Patterson also listed several cases under each subheading of genocide and explicated reasons why the US should be punishable under each subheading of Article III.

Patterson could very well have cited incidents that reached as far back as the abolishment of slavery with the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution in 1865, but he constrained his reports to three years prior to the Genocide Convention, when WWII ended. Ex post facto is a legal, which is used to describe that a person or an entity cannot be held liable for a crime that prior to the act there was not a law condemning the action. In general practice this is because it is usually believed that a person or an entity must have foreknowledge that something is illegal so that they may make an informed decision about the action in question. However, the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi war criminals (1945-1949), wherein a new legal framework was designed by the UN to hold those who were either active or complicit in human rights violations during WWII legally responsible, established a new mandate.[x] The UN displayed by its creation of Human Rights laws and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials that in some cases the ex post facto rule does not apply because there are some acts that humans, as members of our moral community, should know are wrong. For example, participating in the extermination of nearly six million Jewish people was perceived as being unequivocally wrong. Patterson recognized this, but also drew a line to 1945 when the United Nations became an official political entity and the United States one of its dominant members, for presenting cases arguing that genocide was occurring in the US.

However, Patterson had to contend with the fact that the United States was one of the founding members of the United Nations and also a major proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) who was president during most of WWII, was the chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Committee. She also denied Patterson’s request to present the petition to the UN. In addition to that the US State Department confiscated Patterson’s passport in an attempt to limit his international travel between the United States and France where the UN was at the time located. Both of these actions were an attempt to impede Patterson’s ability to address the UN and officially charge the US with genocide. In part, it was believed to be inappropriate for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to indict their governments and that if permitted, there would be no end to the petitions.[xi]

Yet, however true that reasoning may have been it seems more realistic that the US did not want to be implicated in a contradiction between its foreign and domestic policies, especially when the US was actively engaged in the international disbanding of racial oppression. Patterson says in regard to this; “Seldom in human annals has so iniquitous a conspiracy been so gilded with the trappings of respectability. Seldom has mass murder on the score of ‘race’ been so sanctified by law, so justified by those who demand free elections abroad even as they kill their fellow citizens who demand free elections at home. Never have so many individuals been so ruthlessly destroyed amid so many tributes to the sacredness of the individual.”[xii]  By the responses of Eleanor Roosevelt and the US State Department, as well as Patterson’s analysis of the conditions and characteristics of the US, it can certainly be asserted that the US had sufficient reason not to want this petition submitted to the UN. However, in the absence of corroborating evidence the reason can only be speculated upon. Yet, notwithstanding the reason why he was impeded in submitting this petition to the United Nations, the fact remains that there was definite opposition to this petition from the United States in the early 1950s. [xiii]

Patterson was confronted with a further complication, given that the genocide he claimed was occurring in the United States to the African American population was not as evident as the genocide that occurred in Germany to the Jewish population. A stark contrast between the African American population in the US in the 1950s and the Jews of Germany in the first half of the 1940s was that there were no concentration camps as defined by Nazi standards in the US. Furthermore, the African American population was also not indiscriminately as a whole being actively herded by the US military into ghettos or extermination camps. Thus, Patterson had to show piecemeal, on a case-by-case basis, that something very similar to what had occurred in Europe under Nazi occupation was occurring in the United States to sustain his claim that the United States was guilty of genocide.

Patterson referenced the Nazis and Hitler to draw some parallels in his argument to the US government to reveal the common characteristics of genocidal treatment to the Jews and African Americans. Patterson presents the first point of reference to the Nazis in the Introduction to We Charge Genocide: “The Hitler crimes, of awful magnitude, beginning as they did against the heroic Jewish people, finally drenched the world in blood, and left a record of maimed and tortured bodies and devastated areas such as mankind had never seen before.”[xiv] This analogy is drawn after Patterson mentions the “ghettos” and “cotton plantations” of America from which he states that the stories of mass murders “on the basis of race” emerged, before arguing that the then Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening statements at the Nuremberg trials on November 21, 1945 should apply the same to the US government.[xv] In the Opening Address for the United States, Jackson states: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”[xvi] Patterson seems to be referencing three points from the opening address, “Crimes against Peace,” “Crimes against Humanity,” and that these acts should not be ignored.[xvii] Patterson’s argument was that Crimes against Humanity were occurring in the United States, that they were being ignored, and that they posed a threat to the continued peace of the world. The painstaking effort to collect and organize the cases in the Evidence section of We Charge Genocide, from the many disparate news articles and court cases from throughout the US, reveals that the conditions African Americans confronted in the United States were, for the most part, being ignored by the international community. Patterson’s allusion to Justice Jackson was a demand to be seen, heard, and respected.

The parallel that Patterson makes is not necessarily that a project of mass extermination of the kind witnessed during the Holocaust was occurring in the US. Rather, based on the Genocide Convention of 1948, Patterson argues: “15,000,000 of [the United States’] own nationals”[xviii] were suffering from genocide because of the laws and practices of the US government whom he further claims to be either, complicit in genocide or conspirator to it. The number “15,000,000” was important to Patterson’s case because in the US in the 1950s US representatives were debating the required number of harms for acts count as genocide.[xix] Nearly 6,000,000 million Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust, but many more suffered from the conditions of genocide under Nazi rule and occupation. Patterson establishes that more than just random cases of hate violence and terror were being wrought upon the African American population in the US during the 1940s, and asserts from this point that something parallel to Germany was occurring in the United States.

The crux of Patterson’s argument, although presenting empirical examples of violence and oppression that according to the Genocide Convention satisfy the sufficient conditions to qualify as genocide, rests more aptly on the parallel of the ideology between the United States government and society, and Hitler and his Nazi regime. Patterson writes; “The whole institution of segregation, which is training for killing, education for genocide, is based on the Hitler-like theory of the ‘inherent inferiority of the Negro.’ The tragic fact of segregation is the basis for the statement, too often heard after a murder, particularly in the South, ‘Why I think no more of killing a n—-r, than of killing a dog.”[xx] Patterson essentially argues and presents cases in support of the entire African American population, estimated at “15,000,000” people, being dehumanized, deprived of dignity and value, and being disposed of with impunity under the same pretext as the Jewish people who were exterminated under Nazi rule and occupation in Europe during the 1940s. Based on Patterson’s analysis and characterization of the United States in regard to the African American population, it was the ideology of inferiority that justified Jim Crow laws and red-lining neighborhoods. Permitted police brutality and extralegal organization like the KKK to terrorize people seeking to vote or improve their living conditions. That justified the US Supreme Court’s decisions to hold as Constitutional decisions regarding infringements of the 15th Amendment, extradition, and other state court rulings in criminal cases. And in permitting political leaders, such as governors to publically advocate the murder, “in whole or in part,” of the African American people in the US on the basis of “race”.

Given the considerable space devoted within the petition to justifying that the United Nations both could and should permit the petition, and the opposition from both the United States and its representatives, it is apparent that the petition was not met with wide approval and perhaps even much disbelief. This presented a few problems for Patterson. First, he was opposing the status quo of the United States during the beginning the Cold War, and was perceived as an enemy of the state. Second, a major component of the arguments within We Charge Genocide are economic in nature and not only do they serve as evidence for the “conspiracy to commit genocide” by the US government, but also implicitly advocate redistributive principles, which revealed his communist leanings. Third, he had to establish the grounds for being heard in the General Assembly of the United Nations as a non-governmental organization. Hence, Patterson had a necessity to compare the United States government to Hitler and the Nazi regime as a point of reference and so as to establish the credibility for the claims presented in his petition. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention were both direct results of the Holocaust concerning international law, thus making both Hitler and the Nazi regime the quintessential examples by which to evaluate human rights violations.

African Americans in the United States were suffering under horrendous conditions in the 1940s, but by comparing the perpetrators of that suffering to Hitler and the Nazi regime in such a profound way, Patterson only made the situation appear more dire and repugnant. What Patterson wanted was to have the United Nations force the United States to honor the treatise it had signed and to change the laws of the land to guarantee Civil Rights for the African American population. Yet, nearly ten years later, the Jim Crow laws were still in effect, segregation was still a dominant practice in the South, and African Americans had yet to unequivocally have their Civil Right to vote protected Constitutionally. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the October 1960 issue of the Courier, however, did not advocate for the revision of the US laws, but rather for a revision of the manner in which the children in the US were educated.[xxi] The Courier did acknowledge the “Hitler-like” ideology Patterson claimed to exist in the US with the statement; “there is still a fairly widespread feeling that ‘colored’ people are in some way inferior to ‘white’ people,”[xxii] but it did not go so far as to label the feeling “Hitler-like”. If the Courier is taken as representative of the response of the United Nations to Patterson’s petition We Charge Genocide, then it can be argued, the UN was unwilling to hold the United States accountable for the crime of genocide in light of the proof. Furthermore, it also reveals that although, Patterson’s charge of genocide was heard, that in contradiction of the Genocide Convention, it nonetheless still, remained largely ignored by the United Nations in 1960. And while the people of the United States and the representatives of both the US and the UN at the time may have been too close to the claims to fully acknowledge their gravity, a more objective analysis of the evidence and the analogy between Hitler, the Nazi regime, and the US government of the mid-20th Century is very relevant.

[i] Patterson, William L., We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government (1951), (p. 3) (doc. P. 32).

[ii] United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights                           

[iii] United Nations. Genocide Convention

[iv] Patterson, “The Opening Statement,” (p. 18) (doc. p. 47)

[v] Patterson, “The Evidence,” (p.106) (doc. p. 135)

[vi] Newsweek, “Germany: Hitler Decrees Swastika Reich Flag; Bars Intermarriage; Relegates Jews to Dark Ages” September 21, 1935. American Views of the Holocaust 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History, ed. Robert H. Abzug (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 58.

[vii] Dr. Glenn, Susan A. Lecture. University of Washington: History Department. The Holocaust and American Life (February 17, 2015).

[viii] Patterson, “The Opening Statement,” (p. 8) (doc. p. 37)

[ix] Patterson, (doc. p. 20)

[x] Dr. Glenn. Lecture. (January 6, 2015).

[xi] Dr. Glenn. Lecture. (February 17, 2015).

[xii] Patterson, “The Opening Statement,” (p. 3-4) (doc. p. 32-33)

[xiii] Dr. Glenn. Lecture. (February 17, 2015).

[xiv] Patterson, “Introduction,” (p. xii) (doc. p. 25)

[xv] Patterson, “Introduction,” (p. xi-xii) (doc. p. 24-25)

[xvi] Jackson, Robert H. “Opening Address for the United States” November 21, 1945. Reprinted in Michael R. Marrus, ed. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945-46: A Documentary War History(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 79.

[xvii] Jackson, p. 83.

[xviii] Patterson, “Introduction,” (p. xii) (doc. p. 25)

[xix] Dr. Glenn. Lecture. (February 17, 2015)

[xx] Patterson, “The Opening Statement,” (p. 8) (doc. p. 37)

[xxi] United Nations. Courier. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. October 1960.

[xxii] Courier, p. 9.