From Civil Rights BACK to Human Rights: Reclaiming the African American Radical Human Rights Tradition

From Civil Rights BACK to Human Rights: Reclaiming the African American radical Human Rights Tradition

Presentation by Ajamu Baraka
At the Black Radical Congress

June 18th, 2005, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia

“We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level- to the level of human rights. No one from the outside world can speak out on your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers, and our Asian brothers, and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as its civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. When you expand the civil rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the Black man in this country before the nations in the UN. Civil rights mean you are asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something that you were born with. Human rights are your God given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth.”

Malcolm X

Malcolm’s understanding of and commitment to an idea of human rights as the more appropriate framework to situate the struggles of African Americans reflected a radical tradition of nationalist thought and practice that had not accommodated itself to the idea that African American interests and fundamental rights were dependent on the “American” State. This articulation and the practice that it produced served as the foundation of the African American “radical” tradition of human rights struggle.
The African American approach to the human rights struggle is an important example of how to effectively link national level human rights advocacy and organizing to international advocacy as part of a unified comprehensive strategy. This approach and the experiences gleaned from it over the years serves as the basis of what I am calling a “people-centered” approach to human rights struggle.

There are four key elements that I will argue: (arguments were made verbally and are not available in print)
a) There is a radical perspective regarding human rights that has always seen human rights as an arena of struggle.
b) African Americans were the first articulators of this tradition, connecting anti-racism nationally and anti-colonialism internationally.
c) The African American radical perspective on human rights was consistent with the tradition of African American internationalism that grew out of and simultaneously informed diasporic oppositional struggle
d) The radical African American human rights tendency was one of the first victims of the Cold War, which saw African American human rights activists the targets of U.S. State repression and resulted in an abandonment of human rights terminology by many mainstream African American activists. The struggle was transformed into a constitutional – based civil rights struggle.

The “modern” African American radical human rights tradition emerged toward the end of the Second “World War” when African American activists saw strategic opportunities in post war plans to establish the United Nations – a global structure that its advocates claimed would be committed to the protection of human rights as one of its main objectives. African American activists saw this development as an opportunity to “internationalize” the struggle against State – sanctioned racial oppression in the United States and to push the Europeans to live up to the rhetoric of national self-determination for all peoples by establishing a process for the decolonization in Africa as reflected in the Atlantic Charter issued by the United States and Britain.

However, in the historiography of the human rights movement, African American activism was a key missing element. Until recently, mainstream and even radical scholars generally ignored or marginalized the reality of African American agency in the international arena and its impact on the evolution of the early human rights framework. The exclusion of African American participation in the development of the grand narrative of human rights can be partially explained by the critical approach to the human rights framework that many leading African American activists took. From WEB Dubois, through to Malcolm X and to the present, African Americans saw the potential of the human rights idea as a developing social framework for radical global change once delinked from the limitations of Eurocentric liberal reformism, State-centered legalism and imperialism.

The interconnected characteristics of the African American radical human rights tradition are:
a) National oppression in the US and colonialism internationally were national and international expressions of one global white supremacist structure. Therefore, a stance for human rights required linking both forms of oppression.

b) Reliance on U.S. Constitution as the guarantor of African American rights was limited because of the narrow scope of rights reflected in the constitution and the legal reversals on the issues of race that characterized much of U.S. judicial history.

c) Internationalism – highlighting racial oppression in the U.S. in international forums and building transnational political and organizational links with other oppressed peoples with a special emphasis on Africa.

d) Human rights, even in its liberal reformist guise, could serve as a counter-hegemonic normative framework when taken to its logical conclusion.

e) The realization of human rights required linking it to issues of democracy and social justice and anchoring it in social movements organizing against all forms of oppression and for the self-determination of all peoples.

Informed by the African American radical human rights tradition, a people-centered human rights framework provides a theoretical and practical break with both race and class-bound liberalism and a mechanistic State-centered legalism. It is a political project that is biased on the side of those forces that have identified all forms of oppressive relations, including capitalism, neoliberalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialism, as structural and ideological constraints on the ability to realize the full range of human rights.

The components of a People- Centered human rights theory and practice (praxis):

a) Is informed by a dynamic process of struggle. It recognizes the contingent and contested nature of the human rights framework. The meaning and content of what will be recognized as human rights will be determined by the people and not by State elites.

b) Is based on the popular needs and democratic aspirations of the people. A “People- Centered” human rights praxis utilizes Black feminist intersectional analysis to anchor its social justice demands and liberatory program on the most oppressed sectors of the People. In the US, this suggests that the objective conditions, experiences, needs and perspectives of working class and poor African American, Latino and Native women must be a central component of a radical human rights program.

c) Is consistently anti-oppression and employs a rights- based lens to all social policy.

d) Is internationalist – recognizing the interconnections and interrelationship of local and global issues and struggles.

e) Is transformative – proceeds from the position that the struggle for human rights and dignity must move societies toward the establishment of social institutions, structures and social relationships that reflect a real commitment to human dignity and social justice.


As we face the challenges of a dying but dangerous capitalist global system, now is the time to be stronger, more committed and more resolved that we will not tolerate injustice and a reversal of the people’s struggle for human rights and dignity over the last five decades. We will not fade quietly into the long night of apathy and resignation – but we will join with those who dare to struggle for a real democracy, for social justice and human rights.

As human beings, we are not given the choice of conditions or history that we are born into but we do have the ability to choose how we engage those conditions. And for many of us we have chosen to fight, to struggle, not out of vindictiveness or hate, but out of a firm moral commitment to social justice and a belief that the evils that humans create can be transformed and humans themselves can be transformed. We struggle, knowing that the forces of oppression are not easily defeated but we are steeled in our determination to destroy all forms and systems of domination.

Ready for the Revolution!