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Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 | Book Review by Robert L. Hollis

Eyes off the Prize is both an outstanding and disturbing account of how American racism and Cold War paranoia eviscerated an emerging African American human rights movement during the 1940s and 1950s. The book reveals that the “Prize” that African Americans originally pursued was not civil rights but international human rights. The author, Carol Anderson, is the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She is a renowned researcher and writer on African Americans, the United Nations, and human rights.

Her book is a rare and timely work that exposes the “symbolic equality” that the United States perpetrated on African Americans. Carol Anderson’s work belongs alongside that of the late great human rights scholar Dr. Y.N. Kly who created a tradition and corpus of professional scholarship on minority rights with an emphasis on the African American struggle for human rights. He and Dr. Anderson both agree that there is a need for a paradigmatic change in African American thinking about democracy and minority rights.

Kly, in A Popular Guide to Minority Rights (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 1995), suggests that if African Americans “begin the process of reorienting intellectual thought around the right to self-determination is first of all an act toward intellectual liberation, and is an historical landmark suggesting that we [ African Americans] have finally broken free of the enslavement paradigms, and can now begin to contribute positively and meaningfully to African American freedom and to American intellectual, political, cultural and material development.”

Carol Anderson’s book is compelling and painfully revealing about the forces arrayed against the African American people and their aspiration to be free. Her style is to use history as a powerful tool to continue the conversation of international human rights for African Americans and push forward the idea of a “Third Reconstruction” to dismantle oppression and inequality.

The book begins with what African Americans, through the leadership of the NAACP, initially wanted, which was not civil rights; it was the greater prize of international human rights. The NAACP understood the great potential that human rights had. They knew that human rights could better address both the political and socio-economic needs of the African American people. Enemies and so-called friends discouraged the movement toward human rights for African Americans, which forced the NAACP to retreat from the idea of human rights and embrace an anemic civil rights ideology.

In chapter 2, Anderson paints a grisly portrait of lynchings, rape, and racist mob action against African Americans. She does a remarkable job exposing how the State Department maneuvered to modify the UN’s organs to fit the needs of the United States in an effort to appear favorable before the world and, at the same time to prevent some nation with credibility from presenting the petition of African Americans to the United Nations.

The last three chapters focus on the forces that would have a terminal impact on the struggle for human rights. According to Anderson, the intensification of the Cold war, a fierce internal political opposition to human rights, and a dysfunctional black leadership was the poisonous brew that destroyed a promising movement that would have finally freed Black people in America. Dr. Anderson points the finger at the hypocrisy of Eleanor Roosevelt and her underhanded dealings to thwart the human rights efforts of the NAACP. Added to this was the rise of the Southern Dixiecrats, who went all out to smear the African American human rights movement as communist-inspired.

Anderson concludes the final chapter with a sad and tragic commentary regarding the African American leadership capitulating for a few crumbs from the floor of the civil rights table. She goes on to say, “African American leadership barely scratched the surface to gaining any kind of equality.”

Students and activists who are familiar with human rights and international law will benefit immensely from this superbly written book that documented this historical account of the African American human rights struggle. Eyes off the Prize provides us with a foundation from which to articulate a demand for international human rights today. This book rekindles and enhances the conversation on African American human rights.

Anderson is a quiet radical who does not hold back on the truth. The book is of high academic quality and well-structured. It has numerous pages of footnotes for a valuable and absorbing window into a critical but little-known period in the African American struggle for freedom. This historical work could be the political seed that ignites a more radical movement.