by Mike Kuhlenbeck
“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 the petitioners take lightly,” according to the primary document in the new edition of the book “We Charge Genocide,” published by New York City-based International Publishers.
Released in February, the book’s title comes from the petition “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of the U.S. Government against the Negro People.” This scathing report, authored chiefly by attorney William Lorenzo Patterson, was presented to the fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly at the Palais Chaillot in Paris on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress in 1951.
The petition was also presented to the office of the U.N. General Secretary in New York City by a delegation led by artist and activist Paul Robeson. Notable signatories of this landmark case included Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson Jr., just to name a few.
The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was founded in the spring of 1946 with a mission “To strive constantly to safeguard and extend all democratic rights, especially the rights of labor, and of racial, political, religious and national minorities. To combat discrimination against these groups; to defend and aid victims of the fight for these groups; to fight against domestic fascism and all its forms – Jimcrow, anti-Semitism, red-baiting, discrimination against the foreign-born.”
Based on the U.N. charter’s definition, the CRC (1946-1956) drew up this legal presentation “on behalf of the Negro people in the interest of peace and democracy.” They argued that the U.S. government was “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.” In essence, this document was to prove that 15 million African-Americans were subject to the barbarities of Jim Crow and his willing accomplice, Uncle Sam.
The word “genocide” was coined in the early 1940s by attorney Raphael Lemkin, who considered genocide as “a composite of different acts of persecution and destruction.” In the wake of the Nuremberg Trials rendering punishment against Nazi war criminals for their systematic attacks on human dignity and life, the United Nations was born.
Released in February, the book’s title comes from the petition “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of the U.S. Government against the Negro People.”
The Genocide Convention was approved by the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 9, 1948. In a new prologue by Jarvis Tyner, chair of the New York State Communist Party and two-time vice-presidential candidate (1972 and 1976), he notes the following:
“It was the tragedy of war, enormous human suffering, and the holocaust that created the undeniable need for the United Nations to be established. In response to the mass murder and genocide perpetrated on the world’s people by the fascists, the Genocide Conventions were also adopted as part of the U.N. Charter.”
Along with being the petition’s main author, Patterson served as the national executive secretary of the CRC. Throughout his career, he campaigned for civil rights and labor rights.
He was born in San Francisco on Aug. 27, 1891, and his legal career began after graduating from Hastings College with a law degree in 1919. He moved to New York in 1923 and opened a firm in Harlem with attorneys Benjamin Dyett and George Hall.
He defended Sacco and Vanzetti and The Scottsboro Boys in the 1920s and 1930s respectively. Decades later, he served as an advocate for Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party. His autobiography, “The Man Who Cried Genocide” (1971), is also available from International Publishers.
As noted in his second foreword to the book: “The petition declared that racism of government was a criminal policy. It constituted a flagrant violation of the U.N. charter, its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more specifically the U.N. Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Supporting the charges of the CRC is the lengthy documentation of such instances of genocide chronologically arranged “under those provisions of the Genocide Convention which they violate.” This case file, located in the third part of the petition under the name “The Evidence,” lists names, places and crimes committed Jan. 1, 1945, until June 1951. Gruesome tales of lynching, beatings and murder against individuals and groups paralleled those of the fascist death squads in Europe, in regards to both vigilante mobs and state-sanctioned executioners.
Patterson wrote: “We speak for progressive mankind because a policy of discrimination at home must inevitably create racist commodities for export abroad – must inevitably lead to war.”
In 1970 the petition was presented again to the U.N. by the Emergency Conference Committee, which was co-chaired by Ossie Davis, Angie Dickerson and Dick Gregory. Davis wrote in his preface for the second edition (which has been republished for the new edition) in August that same year: “History calls for an end to genocidal relations at home and abroad. This Petition is called for by history and the people are its bearers.”
The third edition of “We Charge Genocide” contains new material and essays providing context to the work’s social and political relevance today. This offering demands to be read by those who stand on the progressive side of human history.
Tyner links the petition and the new edition in part to the Black Lives Matter movement as “the killing of African-Americans continues almost daily,” to quote Betty Smith of International Publishers. One can read the following line from the petition to see little has changed in what is boasted to be a free country: “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.”
The recent tragedies instigated by racists and Neo-Nazis at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have seized the attention of millions at home and around the globe, these horrors are part of a shameful history hundreds of years in the making. As Tyner has written, “In our country, there is a history of racist terror and genocide directed at African Americans. Certainly this was undeniable after 300 years of chattel slavery, a system more vicious and inhumane than ancient Greek and Roman slavery.”
“Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.”
To conclude with a passage from Robeson’s 1952 essay “Genocide Stalks the U.S.A.” (as published in New World Review): “The American people will some day take pride in the fact that at a time when the United States government was the driving force behind the oppression of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, it was boldly called before the bar of world opinion by progressive Americans who exposed its pretensions of ‘democracy’ and proved it guilty of genocide within its own borders.”
Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union UAW Local 1981 AFL-CIO member based in Des Moines, Iowa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.