[This piece is adapted from an old paper I did on the document in the title. Years later, William Patterson’s We Charge Genocide still bothers me because I imagine the charges to be true of a country I once, foolishly, held in high esteem.]
In 1951, a document entitled We Charge Genocide by William Patterson was written and presented to the United Nations that seeks to indict the United States government for genocide, claiming the United States government played, at the very least, some kind of implicit role in this crime against its Negro citizens. [Note that Patterson uses the word “citizen” and not the word “population.”] Patterson submitted his document to the United Nations at the time under the terms and conditions expressed in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as agree upon by the United Nations in 1948. Given the high moral ground many United States citizens undoubtedly believe their country occupies, such a charge may appear contemptible. However, it’s impertinent to dismiss such a charge forthwith; evidence must be examined to determine whether or not the charge brought forth by Patterson has any merit.
Patterson begins his text by appealing to the responsibility inherent in his patriotism; bringing forth the charge of genocide is unfortunate but he feels it is something he must do, citing Hitler’s Germany as an example of what happens to a country when its racism goes unchecked. Patterson declares that this leads not just to genocide at home but to predatory war abroad as well. These are possible consequences that Patterson is not prepared to live with and he is incredulous with those that are. He claims that the United States government, in regard to its Negro population, “Seldom has mass murder on the score of ‘race’ been so sanctified by law.” Patterson notes that such an insidious act cannot go unnoticed no matter how justified by judicial decree. Nor can genocide be disguised by any appeal to a ‘high moral purpose.’
Even though Patterson’s introduction is justifiably laden with subtle anger, he must prove the charge: Is the United States government guilty of genocide (or attempted genocide)? Patterson recites the definition of genocide from Article II of the Genocide Convention, and claims there has indeed been a systematic intent by the United States government to destroy its Negro population either in part or in whole, citing a number of groups – some governmental, some semi-governmental, and others public – involved in this attempt. In order to achieve their ends, Patterson alleges a number of methods these groups use, the most obvious of which is physical harm but also through trumped up criminal charges and bureaucratic avenues. Often, Negros are prevented from voting and regularly denied the rights afforded to them by the Constitution of the United States. Furthermore, Patterson claims to have proof of an economic genocide which is allegedly designed to deny a sufficient means of living to Negro people, a practice which often results in a shortened life span for Negros and is accompanied by a high infant mortality rate.
The proof Patterson says will be submitted in his document is undeniably incriminating, for the evidence comes straight from, “…their own mouths, their own writings, their political resolutions, their racist laws, and from photographs of their own handiwork.” Such evidence, it is implied, is to be so damning as to be overwhelming. Moreover, such evidence is so pervasive that it has resulted in an attempt at genocide that is more understood than deliberately stated among non-Negros. This ‘understanding,’ Patterson alleges, comes via generations of the oppressor’s modus operandi as to be a matter of inherency. It is not possible, Patterson insists of the 10,000 or more murdered Negros, for there to be so many victims of genocide in the United States without some level of assistance by the country’s government. Patterson does not mince words here; he intends to demonstrate that a conspiracy to commit genocide exists within the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the United States government.
Patterson writes that these charges must be brought forth because Negros are in fact human beings whom he states are being denied their human rights, whose basic humanity is mocked. This is more than an allegation; Patterson offers proof of the very words recorded by congressmen in the halls of Congress to this very effect. The charge of genocide is made all the more imperative as the murder of Negros moves beyond the lynchings of white supremacists to a policy of murder adopted by police, an institution recognized as a branch of the government.
From there, Patterson offers an abridged summary of the kinds of cases that demonstrate a conspiracy to commit genocide that is prevalent throughout the United States. First, Patterson briefly recaps no less than twenty-one instances in which Negro citizens were murdered at the hands of police officers, almost half of which were already in custody at the time of their murders. Second, Patterson recaps another twenty-one cases in which murders occurred via arson or other acts of whites aspiring to violence, or from a willful neglect of medical institutions (run by whites) to treat injured Negros. All these cases point towards a policy of mass murder with nothing other than the victim’s ethnicity to serve as a catalyst for those murders. Patterson claims these cases often have their origins in the attempt to prevent Negros from voting.
Patterson feels the attempt to keep Negros from voting is intimately linked to an attempt to deny Negros their rights as citizens in accordance with the United States Constitution. He cites the state of South Carolina as an example of a state in which then Governor James E. Byrnes openly declared that he would rather eliminate the state’s school system than allow desegregated schools. Worse, Patterson submits the very words of one former governor, Strom Thurmond, from a handbook on States Rights in which a declaration of violence is mandated should it become necessary to protect white business owners should Negros be allowed to vote. Patterson also recalls the words recorded by Senator Allen Ellender, whose message to the United States Senate in 1948 was laden with racism and an implicit order to prevent Negros from voting.
The instances where violence is more explicitly mandated can clearly be seen in semi-governmental organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Such organizations, Patterson claims, are often chartered by the states they operate in, sometimes even incorporated into those state’s government. It was also not atypical for police officers to belong to these organizations and participate in their activities.
Physical harm to Negros is but a part of the larger problem; mental harm bodes as well which violates the “mental harm” clause of the Genocide Convention forbidding such actions. Here, Patterson quickly recaps seventeen instances in which psychological terror was used to intimidate Negros, typically to prevent Negros from voting. While it is not always the case that Negros come to physical harm, Patterson states, they are never free from the psychological terror aimed at them particularly in, but not limited to, the Southern states.
Patterson indicates that the practice of genocide in the United States is located primarily in America’s southern states, a region commonly referred to as ‘The Black Belt.’ This is due to the South as the former epicenter of the slave trade. While slavery may have since been abolished, Negros still faced racism inherited by the subsequent generations of former plantation owners. This resulted in virtually non-existent political and economic rights for Negros. Naturally, this has been to protect the profits of plantation owners, Patterson writes, whose credit is advanced by the United States’ largest banks. Patterson concludes then that the foundation for genocide in the United States is economic and writes, “It is genocide for profit.” Assuming genocide was indeed practiced during slavery, Patterson does not think genocide ended alongside the abolition of slavery. As Patterson writes it, it appears genocide is as present as ever as Negros struggle to obtain rights for themselves.
The situation needn’t have been so dire. Patterson signifies there had been a short time – from 1868 when the 14th Amendment was passed until 1876 when Republican President Hayes was elected – when the 14th and 15th Amendments were actually enforced. However, the Republican Party, who had been on the side of Negro rights, appeared to abandon Negros in order to secure the votes of the (former) Southern slave owners so the President Hayes might be elected. This had the effect of terror being unleashed upon Negros once more, resulting in “1,955 recorded lynchings from 1889 through 1901” alone. Segregation laws followed in short-order. Spurious criminal charges rose exponentially as well. Come 1900, Patterson points to Senator Tillman’s statement on the floor of the Senate, in which Tillman stated that he was not ashamed to have killed and rigged elections against Negros.
This pattern still persists, Patterson writes of the situation in 1951. This is due in part to the unpopular Korean War which involves a repression of the public by the government in order to maintain support and profits from the war. If Negros are advocates for peace, the government in this case must silence them. [Patterson does not say why Negros would advocate peace in this instance, but intimates that it is because they are traditionally targets of violence.] Politicians and industrialists must silence Negros, too, if they are to maintain power and profits. Thus Patterson insists that the United States has practiced genocide to those ends.
Patterson believes his case is strong because it is true. That is exactly the question before us now: Has the United States government actively engaged in genocide against its Negro citizens? We must analyze the evidence before we pass judgment.
First, we shall take into consideration whether or not Article II of the Genocide Convention was violated, whether there were “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” an ethical group as such. Without question, Negros had been targeted for violence and murder based upon their ethnicity. But Patterson has to submit evidence that there was a conspiracy to commit genocide within the government of the United States.
This is no small task. Patterson himself was aware of this, admitting in his opening paragraphs that the conspiracy to commit genocide is actually more deadly “in that it is sometimes understood rather than expressed” among the perpetrators. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove such an understanding among people; we do not know the minds of others. Such an admission is a double-edged sword; would the General Assembly of the United Nations then see the evidence within this document as a matter of interpretation, which would soften Patterson’s case, or will the depths to which such genocidal practices are ingrained within the perpetrators be obvious? Patterson is gambling on the latter, hoping that his honesty in making this admission would buy his case credibility. But again, this is a gamble in which Patterson is betting that the urgent plight of the Negro people would resonate within the halls of what is ultimately a political arena, an arena that is not known for its deference to emotion, much less reason.
Patterson makes a second potentially damaging admission in respect to his case, the fact that much of the evidence has been garnered from Negro sources. Such an admission could possibly present a biased perspective of the petitioners. However, perhaps Patterson felt justified making such an admission because the evidence is sufficient to implore the United Nations to investigate the matter further. Forthcoming as Patterson might be, it is another large gamble. With the United States as part of the United Nations with whom other countries involved with the United Nations have a political stake in, it is difficult to think that Patterson actually believes the United Nations would vote without hesitation to investigate the matter any further.
Having gotten beyond these admissions, Patterson began to offer some typical cases as evidence. Yet all the typical cases Patterson provided in the instances of killings by police do not indicate any systematic destruction. The best we can say of the twenty-one cases of police brutality is that they are all isolated incidences with no recognizable pattern or methodology of murder among the killers. Motivations, weapons, geography, and situations appear to vary in all of Patterson’s cases. The only thing typical of these cases is that a Negro was killed, where Patterson assumes the innocence of the deceased Negro. Patterson says of the cases where the involved police officer has been charged with a possible crime, they are always exonerated. The problem is that we don’t know why. Racism may likely be involved, but such a fact alone does not indicate genocide.
Patterson goes on to cite more typical cases. In the cases that did not involve police brutality, Patterson contends there were murders of Negros via acts of arson or other general acts of whites aspiring to violence, or from a willful neglect of medical institutions. As before, these all appear to be isolated incidents with no way to prove otherwise. Although some of these acts involve preventing Negros from voting and we today may feel such a motivation to be abhorrent, this does not amount to the United States government seeking the murder of all Negros.
But does it amount to the genocide of Negro people ‘in part’? Lawyer Raphael Lemkin raises a good point in relation to this question in his letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which Lemkin says that local terrorism is meant not to kill Negros in whole or in part, but to preserve them on a different (lower) level of existence. Of course, this is not an endorsement of murder; it is just a possible, maybe even likely, explanation of the situation.
However, these words by Lemkin inadvertently raise another issue, that there was indeed a system, or at least a basic policy in the South, to terrorize Negros so that they should understand their place in society, so to speak. While Lemkin notes that the Genocide Convention does not deal with individual cases, it does not appear to be of any great cognitive leap to think that there exists at the very least an understanding among whites, particularly in the South, to terrorize Negros. This systematic terror then arguably violated the “mental harm” clause of the Genocide Convention, although who is to be held accountable for this violation is debatable. If the United States government knew about and allowed the terror to take place, what government official should be accountable?
To this end, Patterson offered up the words of elected government officials who, if nothing else, intended to prevent Negros from voting or exercising any rights mandated by the United States Constitution. Did a governor of South Carolina declare that he would rather abolish the State’s schools rather than allow integration? Yes; such a declaration has been recorded. Did the governor of Georgia incite other to violence against Negros in 1949? Yes; that too, is on the record. Did Governors Thurmond, Wright, and Dixon approve a political handbook in which violence is endorsed against Negros so that Negro people cannot exercise their civil rights? Yes; this also is a matter of recorded history. Was the militant racist organization the Ku Klux Klan ever incorporated or charted by a state government? Often. In fact, the United Sons of Dixie, a Klan-like organization that was incorporated in Tennessee in 1943, stated in its oath, “Eventually we must eliminate the Negro from this country.” Even if this evidence did not in some way indicate an intent to commit genocide, it certainly speaks of an intent to terrorize, although perhaps by a minority of states and not representative of the United States as a whole. Even so, we should not think this alleviates the federal government of any responsibility in the matter.
If the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution is binding upon all states in its republic, then it is appropriate to hold the entire United States government responsible if any treaties signed by the United States government are violated since they are the law of all the land. With genocide a notoriously difficult accusation to prove, the intent to terrorize Negros in the United States appears a much easier charge to demonstrate. To that end it appears Patterson had a legitimate case. Thus, the United States government can and should have been held accountable for violating the “mental harm” clause of the Genocide Convention. We can daydream that some day they will be held accountable, though we should not imagine this as a likely scenario given the lack of moral depth with which the United States government seems to operate even now.
On a personal note, I found this historical document resonating deeply given just these instances of the United States government’s questionable moral practices. As a child, I recall believing that I lived in a world in which my native country held themselves to the highest moral standards and pursued noble goals. However, that the United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court’s authority over its citizens to this day is but another instance among so many in which a child has learned how terribly incorrigible his uncle has been.