Human Rights, and Wrongs
Even by the standards of 1940s, arguably one of the darkest periods in America's tortured history of race, the lynchings at Moore's Ford, Ga., were a shocking crime. In July 1946, two African-American women and their husbands were kidnapped, savagely beaten, and then cut to pieces in a hail of small arms fire.
Their offense? One of the male victims had used a knife to menace a white man accused of raping his now-pregnant wife. The second young woman, along with her husband, was simply caught up in the spasm of mob violence that ensued.
In her compelling new book, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2003), MU Associate Professor of History Carol Anderson points to the Moore's Ford killings as a gruesome watershed in the history of the American civil rights movement. A rising tide of white terror, and the tepid reaction to it offered by the Truman administration, led many African-Americans to conclude that Southern whites were, as one Texas retailers association put it, "free to kill Negroes at will."
In response, says Anderson, black leaders began to re-think the nature of their struggle, casting it less as an effort to secure "civil rights" from a reluctant U.S. government than as a drive to secure "human rights" from a more sympathetic United Nations. These leaders, Anderson says, "were certainly aware of the inconsistency implicit in, for example, the Truman administration's willingness to come up with $400 million toward the building of democracy in Greece and Turkey while saying there was absolutely nothing they could do about what was happening in Georgia and South Carolina."
Eyes Off the Prize, winner of the 2003 Gustavus Meyers Outstanding Book Award for books written to combat bigotry, is the distressing story of how, in the words of one reviewer, this "broadly based NAACP program of human rights got eviscerated during the 1940s and early 1950s."
In its place arose a narrowly focused civil rights agenda that, Anderson argues, has thus far failed to address the problems in housing, health care, education, and employment that years of human rights violations have brought to the African-American community.
During a conversation in her Read Hall office, Anderson, whose quick smile and easy laugh belie her highly-charged subject matter, says the book was in part the product of her own long struggle to reconcile equal rights rhetoric with reality. "I grew up with the attitude that America could do no wrong, believing that this was the land of liberty, the land of democracy and justice," Anderson says. "But gradually I began to take note of things that just didn't fit within that narrative. I couldn't understand, for example, how the United States could support South Africa and apartheid. I couldn't understand… well, so much."
When an older brother went off to Vietnam, for example, Anderson says she began politely questioning the wisdom of her elders: "Who are these communists?" she recalls asking. "Why is my brother over there fighting them?" With the encouragement of her mom, a professional cook, and her career Army dad, she looked to the library and classroom for insight. She began devouring books on history and politics. She wrote papers about leaders who offered alternatives to the status quo. If teachers in her Columbus, Ohio, schools were taken aback by Anderson's precocious political consciousness, they were nonetheless supportive of her zeal.
At Ohio's Miami University, where Anderson studied political science and history, she continued to ask the hard questions. During subsequent doctoral studies at Ohio State University, she grew to love the hunt for answers. "I realized that the methods historians used played to my strengths," Anderson says. "I love reading letters, policy papers and documents. I love mysteries, the archival hunt, trying to piece the story together to figure out who did what to whom, who was double-dealing, who was back-biting, who was coming straight, all of that. To me, history is the great drama of life."
That drama will be much in evidence in her current project, a book-length follow-up to Eyes Off the Prize that will detail how American civil rights thinkers influenced, and were influenced by, newly independent former colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Anderson says the project has already shown that the NAACP was admirably adept at articulating a "third way" of post-colonial nation building, one that sought to curb the potential excesses of private capital accumulation while steering clear of Soviet-style institutions. "No one has looked at the NAACP in this light before," she adds.
That book will likely be years in the making, Anderson concedes, though she says she's already fielding queries from eager publishers. In the meantime, Anderson is not taking her own eyes off the human rights prize. And despite the legacy of places such as Moore's Ford and the persistence of discrimination toward African-Americans, Anderson says she remains confident of a brighter future.
"Maybe I'm just being optimistic, which is really odd for me," Anderson says with a smile. "But I don't think we're so far gone down the road that we can't realize our goal of true human rights for African-Americans. There are already these pockets, these snippets of change, that provide real moments of hope."