‘We Charge Genocide’ petition’s call for justice still echoes seven decades later
William L. Patterson at the Communist Party's New York City office, May 31, 1962. Patterson was the prime mover behind the historic 'We Charge Genocide' petition detailing the anti-Black crimes of U.S. capitalism to the United Nations in 1951. At the time of this photo, Patterson was one of ten Communist Party officials accused of 'subversive activities' by the U.S. government, which was trying to order Patterson and others to register under the Internal Security Act. | AP

WASHINGTON—The historic We Charge Genocide petition that indicted the anti-Black crimes and violence of U.S. capitalism before the whole world during the Cold War was the topic of a Black August event here on Aug. 13, co-hosted by the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and the Paul Robeson House & Museum. Professor Charisse Burden-Stelly, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College, was the featured speaker.

Burden-Stelly presented the background for the 1951 petition to the United Nations and spoke about the context in which it was crafted. Its writers and editors were political prisoners who suffered repression from McCarthyite-era laws in the United States, such as the Smith and McCarran Acts. The petition was drafted under the auspices of the Civil Rights Congress, spearheaded by Communist Party USA leader William L. Patterson.

It was a collaboration among historians, writers, lawyers, poets, and others. Meant to expose the injustices against Black people in the U.S. while the country was projecting “freedom, human rights, and democracy” abroad as a part of its imperialist project, the petition demanded a redress of the crimes against Black people and to indict those responsible.

Notable signatories included W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotta Bass, Ben Davis, Jr., W. Alphaeus and Dorothy Hunton, Louise Thompson Patterson, Eslanda and Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, and notably Mary Church Terrel—who was a Black liberal (to differentiate between Communists listed) who showed the courage to stand up against these contradictions.

The original 1951 petition denouncing the crimes of U.S. capitalism against Black people, We Charge Genocide, is available from International Publishers.

It is also important, Burden-Stelly said, to understand the context in which all this was happening. The petition was written and submitted at the height of the Cold War and Red Scare repression in the United States. The U.S. economy was entering recession following the World War II demobilization, the Korean War was being escalated, and there was a massive rise in anti-Black violence. Many prominent Black Communists were writing about creeping U.S. fascism during this period, which was manifested in increased U.S. imperialism and economic monopolization.

We Charge Genocide was not the first petition filed against anti-Black violence in the United States. The first was submitted in 1946 to the United Nations Human Rights Commission by the National Negro Congress on behalf of 30 million oppressed Negroes of the U.S., which was compiled by Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. This earlier petition would eventually be buried by the U.S. delegation on the Commission. In 1947, Du Bois and the NAACP wrote the Appeal to the World, which was another petition on the denial of rights of Negro citizens. Pressure from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led to the document’s demise, and less than a year later, Du Bois was kicked out of the NAACP for a second time.

Burden-Stelly structured her discussion of the petition in several parts: (1) the politics of it, (2) its critique of white supremacist capitalist imperialism (or racial capitalism), (3) its epistemology, and (4) the ethics woven into it.

The politics of the petition were deeply internationalist. Quoting from Patterson’s autobiography, The Man Who Cried Genocide:

“We in the CRC decided that the presentation of a petition charging the crime of genocide and thoroughly documenting what we regarded as the genocidal attitude of the U.S. Government toward its Negro citizens was timely. It would be helpful, we thought, to all peoples fighting for freedom, and would be particularly helpful here at home among both Black and white citizens where the potentialities of the UN were not too well understood or appreciated. It would point out to Black men and women the broadening avenues through which their struggle might move forward…. The petition, I thought, should expose the reactionary role that the racists of the United States were preparing to play in world affairs, especially its dangers to world peace. No government bound up with racism could want or seek world peace.”

Burden-Stelly continued by noting that the petition writers knew that this violence against Black Americans would result in violence abroad—which was exactly what was happening in the war in Korea. Further, freedom and peace were not possible when anti-Black violence is the go-to policy of the rising global hegemon—the United States.

Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly speaks at the Black August event co-hosted by the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and the Paul Robeson House & Museum. | Courtesy of Claudia Jones School

Burden-Stelly defined white supremacist capitalist imperialism as a racially hierarchical political economy constituting labor super-exploitation, expropriation by domination, accumulation by coercion and dispossession, war and militarism, and the implication of anti-Blackness and anti-radicalism. “The foundation of genocide is economic; it’s a genocide for profit,” she argued.

She then discussed the idea of epistemology, which is the study of how we come to know and understand, believe, and justify belief. It is a fundamentally different way to understand social relations and contributes to understanding that political economy shapes social relations. She finished with a point on ethics, referring to the standards of right and wrong and how we develop our own ethical standards under capitalism.

Approaching the matter from this perspective, Burden-Stelly argued that white supremacist capitalist imperialism is deeply unethical, and the conditions of Black people in the U.S. reveal that the U.S. government is unethical.

“The Genocide petition was a collective, mass-based, people-oriented document that articulated a set of values that are deeply anti-capitalist and understood social good through the eradication of capitalism and the ability to stave off another war,” she said.

The petition took courage, to place one’s self at risk for the betterment of others. The reciprocal care and concern, both nationally and internationally, was for a broader project of human liberation, international peace, and cooperation that is necessary for the broader project of displacing the U.S. as the police of the world.

Concluding, Burden-Stelly emphasized the importance of internationalism. “We have to understand the realities of racial capitalism or white supremacist capitalist imperialism; we have to understand how the economic factors really motivate racialization—anti-Blackness, Indigenous genocide, and the horrible immigration policies that we have.”

The Man Who Cried Genocide: The Autobiography of William L. Patterson – available from International Publishers.

Black August was started in the early 1970s by Black organizers to honor Black freedom fighters, martyrs, and political prisoners who were killed or imprisoned by the state, particularly George Jackson, killed during a prison uprising in California a few years after his younger brother Jonathan was killed trying to free the Soledad Brothers. The anniversaries of many historical events of Black resistance also fall in August, including the Haitian Revolution, the Nat Turner Rebellion, the March on Washington, and the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. It is also the birth month of Black leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Fred Hampton and the deaths of W.E.B. Du Bois and Huey P. Newton.

Burden-Stelly is a scholar of political theory, political economy, and intellectual history. In addition to her teaching at Carleton College, in 2020-21, she will serve as a postdoctoral scholar with the Race and Capitalism Project and the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago. She is co-author, with Gerald Horne, of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History. Her published work appears in journals, including Souls, Du Bois Review, Socialism & Democracy, International Journal of Africana Studies, and the CLR James Journal. She is the guest editor of the forthcoming “Claudia Jones: Foremother of World Revolution” special issue of The Journal of Intersectionality. She is also a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.