Who Wasn’t in New Orleans with Tavis

What Malcolm X, Dubois and Robeson would have told the State of the Black Union.

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In one of my favorite episodes of “The Boondocks,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. awakens after 32 years in a coma. Confronted with the black community, circa 2006, Dr. King is appalled. BET, Michael Jackson and “Soul Plane” are among the things that push Dr. King to the point of calling us “trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing niggas.” Soon thereafter, he announces he’s moving to Canada where, in 2020, he dies on the same November day Oprah is elected President. Through his eternally conscious 10-year-old Huey Freeman, McGruder describes a world in which Dr. King’s truth makes black people angry enough to demand their full citizenship. As a result of Dr. King’s words, Huey tells us, “the revolution finally came.”

I thought about this episode recently when the State of the Black Union 2008 symposium began in New Orleans, La. on Feb. 23. –two days after the date on which Malcolm X was assassinated.

What if Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson suddenly appeared at these proceedings on the Mississippi? What would they have to say to the group of “distinguished scholars, policymakers and leaders” Tavis Smiley assembled? What would their thoughts be about the issue they died fighting for: human rights?

My guess is that they would have asked Tavis & Co. why they weren’t returning home from Switzerland, where earlier that week, another event critical for black America was being held on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

On February 21 and 22, the U.S. government defended its record on race and human rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Our government appeared at hearings before a United Nations committee charged with reviewing U.S. compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination. Completed in 1966, the Convention is the preeminent human rights treaty on race. It came into existence 18 years after DuBois, Robeson and others went to the U.N. with charges that Jim Crow was one great big human rights violation. It became law one year after Malcolm X urged Afro-descendants in the United States to internationalize our struggle.

This forum dovetailed nicely with the themes discussed in New Orleans; it’s too bad that there was so little overlap between the two meetings.

Forty-three years after Malcolm X was assassinated, the U.S. Human Rights Network coordinated a group of more than 125 U.S. human rights advocates in Geneva to reiterate the charges made by DuBois and Robeson 60 years earlier. We told the Committee that racism and white supremacy are responsible for a myriad of contemporary human rights violations ranging from racially disparate rates of incarceration to the quality of education far too many black and brown children receive.

We challenged the official government story that explains these and other racial disparities in terms of our “pathologies” and the overall need for us to do better. We rejected the government’s assertion that it had no legal duty to address these differences even though it has agreed to abide by a human rights treaty that says otherwise. We brought community activists, legal advocates, educators, and students to the United Nations to hold the U.S. government to account for its blatant disregard for the obligations it voluntarily assumed when it ratified the Convention in 1994.

As the type of people Tavis Smiley likes to feature at his town hall style meetings, DuBois, Robeson, and Malcolm X would have had 12 hours to fly from Geneva to New Orleans to make the first panel. On the heels of the U.N. hearings, their speeches most probably would have been peppered with references to Geneva and human rights.