At the conclusion of the forthcoming third edition of Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, he recommends that a new constitutional convention for a true multiracial democracy begin with the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948. Feagin points out that the United States has never had a constitutional convention that represented all or even the majority of the population. As he notes, the original constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 was comprised of 55 white men, representing only 5 percent of the population, and did not include white women, Native Americans, or African Americans.
Feagin’s identification of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights brings to mind the work of my father, Dr. Hung-Ti Chu, at the United Nations and his great personal admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt who shepherded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to its ratification by the General Assembly. My father joined the United Nations in 1946 during the time the Declaration was drafted as a member of the Human Rights Division, and remained at the U.N. in the Secretariat until he retired more than twenty years later. He recalled that Eleanor Roosevelt considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be the Magna Carta for all humankind. She viewed her role in securing adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest achievement. Several years earlier, as a member of the steering committee of the International Student Conference representing the five great world powers, my father had breakfasted with her in the White House and was invited to sit in on FDR’s Fireside Chats over the radio.
My father came to this country as a scholarship student in recognition of his work in the Chinese nationalist movement, receiving his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois in 1937. In 1942, he was invited to become President of Yunnan University in his home province of Yunnan, China, but due to political events and the Communist takeover, was not able to return. After joining the United Nations, he later served as the Principal Secretary of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, and gave the opening speech of the first democratically-elected National Assembly in Korean history.
Following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted a position offered by President Harry Truman on the first United States delegation to the United Nations. At the time she was the only woman on the delegation and in her words:
I knew that as the only woman, I ‘d better be better than anybody else. So I read every paper. And they were very dull sometimes, because State Department papers can be very dull. And I used to almost go to sleep over them, and– [laughs] But I did read them all. I knew that if I in any way failed, it would not be just my failure; it would be the failure of all women. There’d never be another woman on the delegation.
In a perceptive article titled “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” John Sears states that many believe that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that drafted the Declaration of Human Rights would not have succeeded without the skillful leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in chairing the Commission. Without legal or parliamentary training, she oversaw the drafting of the Declaration through weeks of arguing over the meaning of each word and phrase.
The initial commission appointed to recommend a structure for the Human Rights Commission consisted of Eleanor Roosevelt and representatives from Norway, Belgium, China, India, Yugoslavia and the ambassador to the United States from China, Dr. C.L. Hsia. Dr. Hsia was a close personal friend and mentor of my father.
Furthermore, as Sears notes, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted upon the unequivocal anti-discrimination article in the Declaration. She believed it would support the struggle for civil rights in the United States and was aware of the shortcomings of this country in attaining these rights. She even clashed with members of the State Department who did not believe that economic and social rights belonged in a bill of human rights.
The U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 asserts that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncompromising view of universal human rights identifies the source of such rights in events close to home, such as in our everyday interactions:
Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home (…) Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.
In a time when women’s leadership was not widely accepted, Eleanor Roosevelt was truly “the first lady of the United States,” a skillful and practical negotiator, able to maneuver in confidence in male-dominated diplomatic circles, able to build the consensus necessary to forge a lasting testament to the freedom, equality, and dignity of all human beings.