Who Wasn’t in New Orleans with Tavis

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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.


The Ernest E. Morial Convention Center would have provided a platform for them to spread the news about an important, but underutilized forum in which to raise our collective concerns about the State of Black America. They might have urged more people to see themselves as members of a Diaspora of Afro-descendants seeking to partner with allies interested in achieving racial justice. They would possibly have implored their audience to make U.S. domestic human rights obligations a presidential election issue.

This, however, wasn't the case and it's not just because DuBois, Robeson and Malcolm X are irreversibly dead. No one featured at Smiley's Saturday symposium had been in Geneva earlier that week. They could not relay their personal experiences in Geneva to demonstrate the importance of advancing our domestic struggle internationally. They could not report back to Black America the things our government said about us to explain why the most dispossessed people in the United States are disproportionately black and brown.


Ironically, the only entity with a presence at both events was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As part of the government that came under fire in Geneva, it's not surprising that the EEOC did not draw the audience's attention to what happened earlier that week. This, despite the fact that at least one of the contributors to Smiley's book "The Covenant," was present in Geneva and Smiley interviewed U.S. Human Rights Network Executive Director Ajamu Baraka on his PBS television show on Thursday February 28.

This isn't about pointing fingers and affixing blame. We've got much larger battles to fight. This is just about encouraging all of us to make the connections between the domestic and the international. While the two dueling meetings were a missed opportunity, I can only assume that it won't be our last chance to get on the same page about human rights. There is still time to continue the work begun by DuBois, Robeson and Malcolm X. Let's hope we'll do a much better job at making these connections the next time around.


Lisa Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law.