Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights

Allida Black discusses Eleanor Roosevelt's expanding views on civil rights in the United States as she negotiates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Transcript (Text)

As America really goes to war and we begin to see the horrors of persecution, that Eleanor really begins to see both with internment and with racial violence in the United States and the huge prejudice in Europe and how fear is used to churn up hate to justify unspeakable horror, that race really is the litmus test for democracy. And she begins to say that America cannot hide its problems like skeletons in a closet, that democracy's going to fade or grow until we face this problem, that we are all on trial to show what democracy means, and that this is no time for hyphenates, we are all Americans, and that democracy is only as strong as its weakest link.

And so she found it incredibly hypocritical that Americans would fight a war for the Four Freedoms and not address racial discrimination in the United States. And so Eleanor really began to see civil rights in terms of America's race relations as the challenge that we have to face. And by the time the war is over and she goes to the UN, she sees civil rights as human rights, as the right to food, the right to shelter, the right to education, not just the right to vote, not just the right to organize, not just the right to join to a party and free association.

The big issue, first of all, is to convince the United States that economic, social, and cultural rights are in fact rights and should be included in the Declaration. This is a big deal, because the United States says, oh my god, if there's a right to food, does that mean that we have to feed every person in the United States? If there is a right to be treated freely without discrimination, what does this say about Jim Crow? If there is a right to education, does that mean that we have to offer equal education to every American?

And they very much do not want to go down that road because they see it not only as erasing segregation, but they see it as capitulating, as giving in to the communists and getting that communist to say, yes, everybody has a right to food. And so Eleanor really has to negotiate that. And she has to fight, I mean fight. And to Eleanor, it was always about inspiring courage and fighting fear.

And so she decides and really helps encourage the Committee to adopt a three-pronged approach to human rights. The first is to create a declaration that would be a vision that would inspire people to dream and to dare. The second is to simultaneously work with the nations of the world to draft legally binding covenants or treaties on political and civil rights and socioeconomic and cultural rights. And then the third thing to be pursued simultaneously is to develop the court system—how are we going to judge people and how are we going to hold them accountable and how are they going to be punished?

But first you have to have the vision. And she's right, because the only things that happen in those first two years are in fact the covenant. It takes more than—it takes almost 30 years for the covenants to be adopted and ratified. And we're still finding out what they mean. And without the Declaration, we would have not had a common vision that the world could buy into on what human rights means. So that was the first really gutsy controversial decision that she made.

So she's trying to work with and the UN itself to say, let's move the State Department, and thus the American government, going in to say that they will accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which there are provisions guaranteeing free open access to education, the vote, housing, employment, political participation, party memberships, the right to join a union—implicitly supporting the goals of A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King and then working outside the UN to use her column to raise American credentials.

Because after the Declaration is adopted and in 1949 when Eleanor has to debate the American Bar Association and she has to debate southern huge critics of the Declaration, she is saying that civil rights are human rights and that they are social and economic and cultural rights in a way that is trying to force the United States to realize that there is a huge disparity.

Some people expect the Declaration to be a magic wand and everything disappear. The Declaration is a vision, it empowers people. And for the world to change, people have to risk themselves.

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