Why don’t we think of Civil Rights as Human Rights?
The cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement we learned about in school was centered around integration, voting rights, and potentially fair housing. These are all issues that pertain to the civil liberties of Blacks in America at the time (and today). Yet, as the Black Lives Matter movement has shown, Black people continue to be murdered on American soil due to their race. There is no accountability for their murders due to Black people’s social standing within the US. Most would consider the long history of murder and exploitation of a racial group genocide. So why are these crises labeled a ‘Civil Rights’ issue, and not a humanitarian issue, needed to be dealt with at a higher level of accountability? The United States should be held accountable by the United Nations for the enslavement and genocide of Black people. For that to happen, the murder of Black Americans by the American Government can not be deemed a ‘Civil Rights’ issue but rather, “Human Rights issues.’
The initial potential reason we label Police brutality and the violence of white supremacy under the fight for Civil Rights is that this fight started before “human rights,” was in the general lexicon. When many Black Civil Rights organizations were founded in the early 1900s, there was no higher institution above the United States government to bring racial genocide. Starting in 1909, the NAACP was founded as the country’s oldest civil rights organization. The organization’s mission and legacy were built on ending the horrific lynchings that were pervasive all over the country and seeking Black people’s advancement. The NAACP was formed out of the Niagara Movement, which was started in response to the Springfield Riot of 1908. A two-day violent assault and race riot broke out in Springfield when a Black man, George Richardson, was charged with rape and Joe James, another Black man, was accused of murdering a white man. The mob of white people descended on the Black community, shot innocent people, burned homes, looted stores, and mutilated and lynched two elderly and influential Black men, Scott Burton and William Donegan. This riot exemplified the intolerance even in the North, seen as a beacon for hope for Black people. The reality, seen by NAACP founders Ida B. Wells and WEB Dubois, was that white supremacy and violent white supremacist ideology were prevalent all over the United States. The response was to form an organization that would fight to end the lynchings of Black people while also advocating for their advancement. The widespread lynchings during the Jim Crow Era show what would now be considered a humanitarian crisis in the US and give evidence of a racial genocide that continues today. The NAACP was unable to get federal anti-lynching laws passed, but it sparked one of the oldest and longest fights for social justice this world has ever seen by bringing awareness to the issue. However, the moniker is the “Civil Rights Movement,” yet it has always been a movement for Black Lives and rooted in the Human Rights notion to protect all life.
The foundational understanding of how Black people should be treated in the beginnings of the NAACP mirrored the ethics, concerns, and ideologies of world leaders decades later, who came to form the United Nations in 1945, and codified ‘Human Rights,’ in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the UN codified “Human Rights,” the term entered the popular vernacular. So while fighting for Civil Liberties, like access to voting, jobs, and opportunities, the NAACP was also fighting against the murder of Black people, work that we continue to do today.
The work I currently do is tied to human rights, as I’ve fought for Justice for George Floyd or have had conversations with families whose loved ones were murdered by white supremacists, the work I stand for is broader than the category of ‘Civil Rights,’ as people’s lives have been taken.
The UN serves as an institution to protect against human rights violations. As such, organizers continue to address systemic racism and violent white supremacy within the laws and institutions of the American Government. Unfortunately, due to the US power and influence in the United Nations, They’ve yet to hold America accountable for its atrocities against African Americans. It can feel unrealistic to hold a system accountable when its primary goal is to perpetuate said system. Unfortunately, this also means examining the role of white supremacy within a US lens when combatting White supremacy needs to happen at an international scale. By fighting the American Government on its perpetuation of White Supremacist Violence within the American Borders, Black Americans are also foregoing Pan-African and Black Diaspora coalition movement to address American wrongs.
So, where do we find accountability in Human rights if we cannot find it in the UN? We need to make the tonal shift from Civil Rights arguments to Human rights arguments and remind the world that the lives of Black people are at stake. In the 1940’s right after the UN was founded, the NAACP also made this point in their Appeal to the UN. The NAACP, and later the Civil Rights Congress, accused the American Government of their crimes against Black people in the US. 1955, “We Charge Genocide,’ document accused the US government of systemic killings of Black Americans as a crime against humanity. The UN and Human Rights framework offered the NAACP and CRC an opportunity to raise the Black American Plight to the international stage. To make an international argument about the rights of Black folk in the face of global white supremacy. The Black Lives Matter movement does this well and is one of the reasons why it has gained so much international traction. Maybe as we fight on the larger scale to hold the US accountable for its atrocities, we need to also fight on a smaller scale to do the human rights work by connecting with humans over institutions. The families of those who have lost loved ones to police violence have specific asks on all levels, from settlements like the 27 million dollar settlement to the Floyd Family to more significant systemic and global social change. Starting with people, and the rights that people have a right to because they were born on this earth, is the fundamental call for Human Rights.