As a student of political science and international studies at the University of Michigan, I have learned about human rights atrocities across the globe from the Rwandan Genocide to the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar. In these courses, I have learned that a fundamental human right is freedom from discrimination based on any identity including race, ethnicity and gender. These courses have touched on human rights concerns in the United States such as suffrage for women and human trafficking. Not once have I heard of Jim Crow laws referred to as human rights violations or seen the Civil Rights Movement addressed in a class focused on human rights. The Civil Rights Movement was a fight for human rights and, as such, should not be excluded from conversations or classes about human rights.
On Tuesday, March 20th, Carol Anderson came to the University of Michigan to give a lecture about her most recent book “White Rage” which addresses the reactions of White Americans throughout history to combat attempts to provide Black Americans with equality and human rights. Earlier that day, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Anderson through an International Institute event. Anderson told us about her first book “Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955.” She spoke about the groundbreaking research that she did while writing this book, linking the movements together in a way that had never been done before. She treated the Civil Rights Movement as an extension of the human rights movement of the time. This perspective made me stop and think; I had never heard these two movements connected before. As Dr. Anderson described the Civil Rights Movement as a fight for human rights, I realized that the conversation about human rights is still incomplete.
The Civil Rights Movement was a human rights movement. Black Americans were fighting for rights as citizens of the United States, rights that have also been recognized by the international community as fundamental human rights. The Civil Rights Movement fought for the equal treatment of Black Americans during the time of Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws discriminated against Black Americans based on their race and prevented them from receiving equal access to education and public services. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which the United States is a signer, all humans have a right to education and equal access to public services. Under this document, all people specifically have the right to freedom from discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement fought for Black Americans’ access to these universal human rights making it just as relevant in the history of human rights as any other movement.
Civil rights movements in other countries, such as the movement against Apartheid in South Africa, are referred to in the framework of human rights so the American Civil Rights Movement should be as well. Apartheid called for the separation of citizens of the same nation based on their racial identities and appearances. Black South Africans were separated from their White counterparts and treated as second-class citizens, much like Black Americans were in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no reason for two such similar moments in history to be treated differently in the academic context. Black American Civil Rights should be included in the framework of human rights education.
The conversation about human rights needs to be expanded to make room for discussion of the Civil Rights Movement. One way to accomplish this on campus is greater collaboration between the International Institute and the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies. International studies courses focusing on human rights should utilize this collaboration to better include the Civil Rights Movement in their curriculum. The two departments are already making progress with this event featuring Dr. Anderson. However, the Donia Human Rights Center should use increased collaboration with the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies as an opportunity to host more events focusing on this issue to encourage students to think of Black Americans’ civil rights as human rights.