By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

Once again, this May 19, we honor the birthdays of Malcolm X, and his most famous Asian American disciple, Yuri Kochiyama. Malcolm would have been 97 years old, Yuri 101. 

Their friendship in life continues to inspire Black and Asian solidarity in our present-day racially charged police killings of Black and Brown people and now the uptick in pandemic-induced anti-Asian hate. 

I had always thought that the U.S. government benefitted from Malcolm’s assassination because he was planning on bringing the case of human rights for Black people in the U.S. before the United Nations.  What more powerful condemnation of U.S. government policies towards its own Black citizens than to bring it before the world stage at the United Nations for the world to judge! 

I later learned that Malcolm was not the first to think of this, but he was carrying on the legacy of Paul Robeson and William Patterson, the messengers of a Civil Rights Congress petition to the U.N. titled: “We Charge Genocide:  The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.” 

What is interesting to me is historical figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass are fairly commonly known. Paul Robeson — once a world-reknowned actor, singer, and human rights activist loved the world-over — seems to be lesser-known, especially by post-war generations. And I first learned about William L. Patterson while working on this article. Could the reason for silence on these men be their beliefs that communism can guide us to the uplifting of the human race?

The Washington Area Spark website said: “Patterson died in 1980 in relative obscurity as his role in the civil rights movement was written out of history due to his communist affiliation.”

The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) was founded in Detroit, 1946. It was created through the merger of the International Labor Defense (ILD), the National Negro Congress, and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties — all had ties with the Communist Party USA. William Patterson led the CRC throughout its existence. CRC was a major force in the early post-WWII civil rights battles for African Americans and civil liberties for white and black labor movement radicals. CRC used legal defense and mass political action in its 10-year history. (https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/civil-rights-congress-1946-1956/)

Patterson, with the help of Robeson, wrote the book-length petition that was signed by nearly 100 prominent Black American intellectuals and activists; white liberals “refused to endorse it.”  (Martin Duberman, “Paul Robeson: A Biography,” 1989)

Robeson led a delegation on Dec. 17, 1951 to present the petition “We Charge Genocide” to the United Nations Secretariat in New York. As national executive secretary of the CRC, Patterson delivered the petition to a U.N. general meeting in Paris around the same time. The plan was for W.E.B. Dubois to accompany Patterson to the Paris meeting, but the U.S. State Department would not allow him to leave the country.  

“We Charge Genocide”

William L. Patterson (left) confers with attorney Abraham Unger while challenging the authority of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 1959. (Photographer unknown; image courtesy of D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection)

The petition documented hundreds of lynching cases and other forms of brutality that gave evidence of government inaction and complicity. Since many murders go unreported, the real numbers will never be known. But the petition states that in the 85 years since the end of slavery, 10,000 known lynchings had taken place.

The petition’s summary gives a prophetic warning to the nations of the world: “We speak, too, as world citizens, certain that if the forces of predatory reaction are allowed to continue their present policies, are allowed to continue a profitable genocide against Americans, the time will not be long removed, the world being what it is, that the same forces will practice genocide on a wider scale against the nationals of other nations. So we plead not for ourselves alone but for all mankind. We plead not only for an end of the crime of genocide against the Negro people of the United States, but we plead, too, for peace.

 “…We ask that the General Assembly of the United Nations find and declare by resolution that the Government of the United States is guilty of the crime of Genocide against the Negro people of the United States and that it further demand that the government of the United States stop and prevent the crime of genocide.

“We further ask that the General Assembly by resolution condemn the Government of the United States for failing to implement and observe its solemn international obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and the Genocide Convention and the General Assembly also demand that the United States immediately take effective steps to carry out and fulfill its international obligations under the Charter and the Genocide Convention.” (https://www.crmvet.org/info/genocide8_summary.pdf)

The U.S. government worked behind the scenes to block any discussion of the petition by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. An American U.N. delegate criticized Patterson for attacking his own government. Patterson replied: “It’s your government. It’s my country. I am fighting to save my country’s democratic principles.”

Government accusations of the CRC as a “Communist front organization” and the petition as “Communist propaganda” allowed for scant mention of the petition or its content in American mass media. Beyond U.S. “censorship” of the petition, it was well-received and covered extensively by the world’s presses. People of color who were fighting against colonialism could use the petition to question U.S. claims of representing the “Free World” and global moral leadership.

Patterson’s passport was seized by the U.S. State Department as soon as he landed from Paris. The U.S. government silenced Patterson and Robeson to their international audiences, not allowing them to leave the country. Patterson was charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to give names of contributors to the CRC and its bail fund, nor the organizations he belonged. He spent 90 days in federal prison in 1954-55.

By 1956, CRC ceased to exist. The CRC was a victim of “Cold War anti-communism and government repression” during the McCarthy era, which led to its liquidation. Patterson and Robeson, as well as other CRC leaders, were persecuted by the FBI and other government agencies for the rest of their lives. 

https://dh.howard.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1151&context=finaid_manu

Malcolm greatly admired Paul Robeson and praised him for questioning “the intelligence of colored people fighting to defend a country that treated them with such open contempt and bestial brutality.” In January 1965, Robeson was giving the eulogy at the funeral of famed playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Malcolm sent a message that he would like to meet Robeson. Paul Robeson, Jr., met Malcolm in the back of the funeral home to tell him his father would like to meet, but at a less stressful time. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was never able to meet Paul Robeson, as Malcolm was assassinated the following month.

According to Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, “Robeson felt no affinity for the religious austerity of the mainstream Shiite Black Muslim movement and its leader Elijah Muhammad, nor for their emphasis on separation from whites, the confinement of women, and the importance of black entrepreneurship. But toward Malcolm personally he felt high regard, especially after Malcolm had begun to sound an internationalist note following his seminal journey to Mecca.”

Reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (maybe when I was in high school?) and then being able to meet Yuri Kochiyama, who held Malcolm as he lay dying — these are the things that impacted me as a young person and gave me direction for the rest of my life.  I was much later able to meet Malcolm’s first daughter Attallah, who spoke at the Los Angeles memorial for Aichi Kochiyama, Bill and Yuri’s third child. who was tragically killed by a taxi in New York City. Talk about the power of human connections — these things make my heart skip a beat.

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired photojournalist. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at: uyematsu72@gmail.com

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