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Reviews in American History 32.2 (2004) 247-254

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Civil Rights and Human Rights

Carol Anderson. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x + 302 pp. Notes, photographs, bibliography, and index. $65.00 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).

In recent years, scholars have paid increasing attention to the African American struggle for equality and the international arena.1 Racial violence in America and de jure segregation and disfranchisement in the South, discriminatory treatment of nonwhite diplomats from newly independent countries, and the need to counter Soviet propaganda about American racism as the two superpowers competed during the Cold War for the allegiance of emerging nations exerted pressure on American presidents to address domestic civil rights. In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the National Negro Congress (NNC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) petitioned the United Nations (UN) on behalf of African Americans. International concerns encouraged the Truman administration to file supportive briefs in civil rights cases and establish the President's Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR).

Scholars have also noted that foreign policy concerns led the federal government to utilize public relations exercises to challenge claims about American racism. Furthermore, the domestic Red Scare that gathered force in the late 1940s and early 1950s tarred any criticism of American inequalities with the brush of Communism, and anti-Communist attacks and investigations decimated the American left. Civil rights opponents, including the FBI, redbaited, investigated, and harassed civil rights organizations, destroying the CRC and encouraging the NAACP to adopt a strict anti-Communist policy. As Mary L. Dudziak explains: "The narrow boundaries of Cold War-era civil rights politics kept discussions of broad-based social change, or a linking of race and class, off the agenda."2

In Eyes Off the Prize, Carol Anderson examines the attempts of American civil rights organizations to take their grievances before the UN and the failure of their efforts. She argues that the black left was too "enamored with the Communist Party, U.S.A." and placed the party's interests before those of [End Page 247] African Americans (p. 274). Consequently, groups such as the NNC and the CRC failed to win significant black support and alienated organized labor.

The NAACP, Anderson's main focus, began to internationalize the African American struggle for equality in the 1940s. The Association crafted onto its civil rights agenda a demand for human rights, encompassing economic and social rights, which it took before the UN. Predictably, southern Democrats and conservative Republicans sought to limit the UN's authority in America's domestic affairs, but the Truman administration and Eleanor Roosevelt—the NAACP's allies—also "played an equally important role in trying to keep the UN and human rights away from the struggle for black equality" (p. 275). Truman and Roosevelt gave priority to America's Cold War interests as both superpowers tried to use the issue of human rights abuses to undermine the other's moral standing and attempts to woo developing countries. Unwilling to offend its allies and in fear of being redbaited by its opponents, the NAACP's leadership, headed by Walter White, abandoned the human rights approach and retreated to the narrow goal of legal equality.

Although the Brown school desegregation ruling in 1954 seemed to vindicate the NAACP's policy, the decision met with years of southern white defiance and evasion. With the black left destroyed and the NAACP's abandonment of human rights, the struggle for black equality lacked an alternate vision. The civil rights movement failed to tackle racial inequalities in economics, education, health care, and housing during its heyday in the 1960s, and these conditions persist in America to this day.

Anderson claims that the story she tells has not been untold "until now" (p. 7). It would be more accurate to say that the events she describes have not been probed in so much detail before, which is not to slight her incisive scholarship...


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