“We Charge Genocide”: African Americans, Memory, and the Genocide Convention
Just a few years ago, the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) could be described as a “largely forgotten immigrant from Poland who coined the word genocide and pushed a convention outlawing it through the General Assembly.” (The New York Times, 19 June 2001). Even less well known is the story of how, from the very outset, Lemkin and his Genocide Convention were deeply entwined with the politics of race in early postwar America. Initially, African-American intellectuals and political activists saw the Genocide Convention as an opportunity to address the issue of lynching in the American South. The result was a petition titled “We Charge Genocide; The Crime of Government against the Negro People,” signed by a number of prominent (pro-communist) African Americans, including W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, and presented to the United Nations in December 1951 by Robeson (in New York) and by William Patterson (in Paris). Eleanor Roosevelt, then head of the U.S. Human Rights delegation, responded to the petition (without naming it) on the previous day, when she replied to Soviet “charges of the violation of the human rights of Negroes in the United States” by arguing that “Negroes were becoming increasingly active in the political life of the U.S.” (193). Lemkin was infuriated by the use of the word “genocide” to describe the situation of African-Americans. The State Department reacted quickly to the petition by issuing a statement to the effect that it was pure Soviet propaganda. Anxiety about America being seen as a racist capitalist state was among the most important reasons that the Eisenhower administration took steps to staunch the anti-Americanism of “race propaganda” and to defuse the race issue. As Lemkin recognized, “lynchings will become a matter of international concern and will be used by the USSR against the U.S. for propaganda purposes.” Lemkin himself viewed the looming controversy over race as a potentially destructive force, dooming support for his Convention. And as it turned out, he was right. By 1949 Lemkin developed what even a sympathetic biographer called “an obsession bordering on paranoia” and recommended the “tactical” need to sever any linkage between genocide and human rights or civil rights.
Anson Rabinbach is Professor of History at Princeton University. He is co-editor and co-founder of New German Critique. Among his publications are Begriffe aus dem Kalten Krieg: Totalitarismus, Antifaschismus, Genozid (Jena Center 20th Century History; Wallstein Verlag, 2009); Nazi Germany and the Humanities (edited with Wolfgang Bialas; Oxford, 2007); In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment (University of California Press, 1997); The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Basic Books, 1990). The Third Reich Sourcebook (with Sander Gilman) is currently in press at The University of California Press.
Fatima Kastner was born in Tanger, Morocco, and studied philosophy and social sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris. She is a senior research fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and a lecturer at the University of Hamburg. She co-edited Niklas Luhmann: Law as a Social System (London 2004), and has published, among other topics, on the global spread of truth and reconciliation commissions.