In this tumultuous year, a number of important historical concepts have been at the forefront of debates and discussions about public health, social justice and racial equality. The language of rights has been critical to discussions of individual and collective responsibility in the context of the pandemic (as evidenced in the positions adopted by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers). The question of rights has also been part of how Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have framed their concerns around violence and white supremacy though, arguably, the language of justice has been more prevalent, captured in chants of “justice for George Floyd” and “justice for Breanna Taylor”, among others. In her victory speech, Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris talked about liberty, justice and equality. Specific references to “rights” were notably absent.
As numerous of scholars and observers have noted, calls for justice for Black people and the reform of oppressive institutions and practices are not new. Related conversations about the teaching of Black history have also been taking place for decades. However, as this post will explore, historians have generally failed to consider Black history in historical discussions more broadly, such as in the case of the history of human rights (beyond a focus on legal and civil rights challenges), to the detriment of our historical knowledge and the well-being of Black communities.
One hundred years ago this fall, thousands of delegates of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), gathered in Harlem, New York. The UNIA was founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914 and was dedicated to the advancement and “racial uplift” of Black people everywhere. In August 1920, delegates in New York drafted a fifty-four point “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World”, which was also meant to serve as the association’s statement of principles. As historian Carla Marano has discussed in her superb thesis on the history of the UNIA in Canada, the organization helped foster an emerging sense of community among Blacks in Canada, and Canadian leaders such as Dr. D.D. Lewis, President of the Montreal Chapter, contributed to the transnational growth of the organization.
The UNIA’s Declaration, signed by delegates on 13 August 1920, insisted “That nowhere in the world, with few exceptions, are black men accorded equal treatment with white men.” The Declaration then elaborated fifty-four points of action and contention covering issues from voting rights to the treatment of prisoners to the abolishment of the League of Nations. Reading the Declaration in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other anti-racist actions today, one finds that the language of the UNIA declaration brims with familiarity in some ways, and stands very much as a product of its time in others. The tensions inherent in rights discussions are implicit in the document, which calls for both free speech as well as an end to the use of racist language.
Reading the UNIA Declaration hundred years after it was created raises questions about the manner in which conventional rights frameworks are being simultaneously rejected and reinvented in the current moment. Why is the language of justice the basis for current protests? What happened to human rights? For historians, this shift is particularly important because the scholarship of human rights has long rested on a form of teleological genealogy that traces current human rights discourses to the revolutionary language of the late 18th century and documents such as the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, and sees them consolidated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While scholars such as Dominique Marshall have traced important precedents to the League of Nations era and two conventions on the rights of the child, earlier ideas of rights, and especially rights discourses born of resistance, have not been generally incorporated in conventional histories of human rights. Nevertheless, historian Wendell Adjetey insists that the UNIA’s”self-determination manifesto rivaled the U.S. Declaration of Independence and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”
The absence of the UNIA Declaration in general histories of human rights is revealing. It’s not just about a historical silence, because the UNIA Declaration is well-known among Black history scholars. It is important because of when and how historians attribute significance and precedent, and how we understand causality. It is telling that over the course of my research on the history of human rights, the UNIA Declaration never came into play, unlike the documents mentioned previously, or grand state declarations such as the 1941 Atlantic Charter. It is also telling that I came across the UNIA Declaration as part of my research on the history of the Black community in Montreal. Why should the UNIA Declaration appear as community history instead of human rights history?
Beyond the inherently problematic nature of dividing history into tidy, compartmentalized sub-fields, my answer is that we have not paid sufficient attention to how ideas of rights and justice have been framed by those most impacted by the denial and absence of these ideas. In the same way that Japanese Canadians gave weight to notions of Canadian citizenship throughout campaigns for redress after the Second World War, it bears thinking about how so-called marginal groups have been central to our understandings of rights and justice historically and in the present. It’s a lesson for the classroom, as well as for the archives. It’s also about what we celebrate. In Canada, as we commemorate and reflect upon the fiftieth anniversary of the FLQ Crisis, which among other things, enflamed debates and discussions about rights and civil liberties, we might also reflect on how one hundred years ago, Montrealers Dr. D.D Lewis and Mrs. G. O’Brien, along with George Creese of Nova Scotia and Abraham Thomas of Toronto, attended the UNIA meeting in Harlem and put their names to the UNIA Declaration.
The issues addressed in the Declaration are with us today, as are the voices of resistance it incorporates. By way of conclusion, it seems fitting to reprint the fifty-four points in their entirety (including #49 on the teaching of history), to let the document itself do the talking if you will. Except for terminology in #11, the original language has been retained. The Declaration is an important primary source, and the its context of creations offers important lessons for historians of human rights and scholars of anti-Black racism and resistance. It is also a timely read for anyone concerned about issues of equality and justice for all.
Following the preamble, the document declared:
In order to encourage our race all over the world and to stimulate it to overcome the handicaps and difficulties surrounding it, and to push forward to a higher and grander destiny, we demand and insist on the following Declaration of Rights:
- Be it known to all men that whereas all men are created equal and entitled to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and because of this we, the duly elected representatives of the Negro peoples of the world, invoking the aid of the just and Almighty God, do declare all men, women and children of our blood throughout the world free denizens, and do claim them as free citizens of Africa, the Motherland of all Negroes.
- That we believe in the supreme authority of our race in all things racial; that all things are created and given to man as a common possession; that there should be an equitable distribution and apportionment of all such things, and in consideration of the fact that as a race we are now deprived of those things that are morally and legally ours, we believed it right that all such things should be acquired and held by whatsoever means possible.
- That we believe the Negro, like any other race, should be governed by the ethics of civilization, and therefore should not be deprived of any of those rights or privileges common to other human beings.
- We declare that Negroes, wheresoever they form a community among themselves should be given the right to elect their own representatives to represent them in Legislatures, courts of law, or such institutions as may exercise control over that particular community.
- We assert that the Negro is entitled to even-handed justice before all courts of law and equity in whatever country he may be found, and when this is denied him on account of his race or color such denial is an insult to the race as a whole and should be resented by the entire body of Negroes.
- We declare it unfair and prejudicial to the rights of Negroes in communities where they exist in considerable numbers to be tried by a judge and jury composed entirely of an alien race, but in all such cases members of our race are entitled to representation on the jury.
- We believe that any law or practice that tends to deprive any African of his land or the privileges of free citizenship within his country is unjust and immoral, and no native should respect any such law or practice.
- We declare taxation without representation unjust and tyran[n]ous, and there should be no obligation on the part of the Negro to obey the levy of a tax by any law-making body from which he is excluded and denied representation on account of his race and color.
- We believe that any law especially directed against the Negro to his detriment and singling him out because of his race or color is unfair and immoral, and should not be respected.
- We believe all men entitled to common human respect and that our race should in no way tolerate any insults that may be interpreted to mean disrespect to our race or color.
- We deprecate the use of the term “n*****” as applied to Negroes, and demand that the word “Negro” be written with a capital “N.” (Edited by author)
- We believe that the Negro should adopt every means to protect himself against barbarous practices inflicted upon him because of color.
- We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world, and by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asia for the Asiatics, we also demand Africa for the Africans at home and abroad.
- We believe in the inherent right of the Negro to possess himself of Africa and that his possession of same shall not be regarded as an infringement of any claim or purchase made by any race or nation.
- We strongly condemn the cupidity of those nations of the world who, by open aggression or secret schemes, have seized the territories and inexhaustible natural wealth of Africa, and we place on record our most solemn determination to reclaim the treasures and possession of the vast continent of our forefathers.
- We believe all men should live in peace one with the other, but when races and nations provoke the ire of other races and nations by attempting to infringe upon their rights[,] war becomes inevitable, and the attempt in any way to free one’s self or protect one’s rights or heritage becomes justifiable.
- Whereas the lynching, by burning, hanging or any other means, of human beings is a barbarous practice and a shame and disgrace to civilization, we therefore declare any country guilty of such atrocities outside the pale of civilization.
- We protest against the atrocious crime of whipping, flogging and overworking of the native tribes of Africa and Negroes everywhere. These are methods that should be abolished and all means should be taken to prevent a continuance of such brutal practices.
- We protest against the atrocious practice of shaving the heads of Africans, especially of African women or individuals of Negro blood, when placed in prison as a punishment for crime by an alien race.
- We protest against segregated districts, separate public conveyances, industrial discrimination, lynchings and limitations of political privileges of any Negro citizen in any part of the world on account of race, color or creed, and will exert our full influence and power against all such.
- We protest against any punishment inflicted upon a Negro with severity, as against lighter punishment inflicted upon another of an alien race for like offense, as an act of prejudice and injustice, and should be resented by the entire race.
- We protest against the system of education in any country where Negroes are denied the same privileges and advantages as other races.
- We declare it inhuman and unfair to boycott Negroes from industries and labor in any part of the world.
- We believe in the doctrine of the freedom of the press, and we therefore emphatically protest against the suppression of Negro newspapers and periodicals in various parts of the world, and call upon Negroes everywhere to employ all available means to prevent such suppression.
- We further demand free speech universally for all men.
- We hereby protest against the publication of scandalous and inflammatory articles by an alien press tending to create racial strife and the exhibition of picture films showing the Negro as a cannibal.
- We believe in the self-determination of all peoples.
- We declare for the freedom of religious worship.
- With the help of Almighty God we declare ourselves the sworn protectors of the honor and virtue of our women and children, and pledge our lives for their protection and defense everywhere and under all circumstances from wrongs and outrages.
- We demand the right of an unlimited and unprejudiced education for ourselves and our posterity forever[.]
- We declare that the teaching in any school by alien teachers to our boys and girls, that the alien race is superior to the Negro race, is an insult to the Negro people of the world.
- Where Negroes form a part of the citizenry of any country, and pass the civil service examination of such country, we declare them entitled to the same consideration as other citizens as to appointments in such civil service.
- We vigorously protest against the increasingly unfair and unjust treatment accorded Negro travelers on land and sea by the agents and employee of railroad and steamship companies, and insist that for equal fare we receive equal privileges with travelers of other races.
- We declare it unjust for any country, State or nation to enact laws tending to hinder and obstruct the free immigration of Negroes on account of their race and color.
- That the right of the Negro to travel unmolested throughout the world be not abridged by any person or persons, and all Negroes are called upon to give aid to a fellow Negro when thus molested.
- We declare that all Negroes are entitled to the same right to travel over the world as other men.
- We hereby demand that the governments of the world recognize our leader and his representatives chosen by the race to look after the welfare of our people under such governments.
- We demand complete control of our social institutions without interference by any alien race or races.
- That the colors, Red, Black and Green, be the colors of the Negro race.
- Resolved, That the anthem “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers etc.,” shall be the anthem of the Negro race. . . .
- We believe that any limited liberty which deprives one of the complete rights and prerogatives of full citizenship is but a modified form of slavery.
- We declare it an injustice to our people and a serious Impediment to the health of the race to deny to competent licensed Negro physicians the right to practice in the public hospitals of the communities in which they reside, for no other reason than their race and color.
- We call upon the various government[s] of the world to accept and acknowledge Negro representatives who shall be sent to the said governments to represent the general welfare of the Negro peoples of the world.
- We deplore and protest against the practice of confining juvenile prisoners in prisons with adults, and we recommend that such youthful prisoners be taught gainful trades under human[e] supervision.
- Be it further resolved, That we as a race of people declare the League of Nations null and void as far as the Negro is concerned, in that it seeks to deprive Negroes of their liberty.
- We demand of all men to do unto us as we would do unto them, in the name of justice; and we cheerfully accord to all men all the rights we claim herein for ourselves.
- We declare that no Negro shall engage himself in battle for an alien race without first obtaining the consent of the leader of the Negro people of the world, except in a matter of national self-defense.
- We protest against the practice of drafting Negroes and sending them to war with alien forces without proper training, and demand in all cases that Negro soldiers be given the same training as the aliens.
- We demand that instructions given Negro children in schools include the subject of “Negro History,” to their benefit.
- We demand a free and unfettered commercial intercourse with all the Negro people of the world.
- We declare for the absolute freedom of the seas for all peoples.
- We demand that our duly accredited representatives be given proper recognition in all leagues, conferences, conventions or courts of international arbitration wherever human rights are discussed.
- We proclaim the 31st day of August of each year to be an international holiday to be observed by all Negroes.
- We want all men to know that we shall maintain and contend for the freedom and equality of every man, woman and child of our race, with our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
Laura Madokoro is a member of the Active History Editorial Collective.
 In the Canadian context, for a history of Black activism, rights and the courts see Barrington Walker, Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1958 (University of Toronto Press, 2010); Constance Backhouse, Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Race in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1999) and James G. Walker, “Race,” Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada: Historical Case Studies (The Osgoode Society and Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).
 Carla Marano, “For the Freedom of the Black People”: Case Studies on the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Canada, 1900-1950,” PhD Thesis, University of Waterloo, 2018.
 Dominique Marshall, “The Construction of Children as an Object of International Relations: The Declaration of Children’s Rights and the Child Welfare Committee of League of Nations, 1900–1924.” The International Journal of Children’s Rights 7, no. 2 (1999): 103–148. See also, http://aidhistory.ca/talk/1919-a-revolution-in-childrens-rights-by-dr-dominique-marshall/#description-tab, accessed 4 November 2020.
 Wendell Adjetey, “When Marcus Garvey Came to Canada: No Leader before Or After has Electrified the Diaspora of African Descendants to the Same Extent,” The Globe and Mail, 24 January 2020.
 Source: UNIA Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, New York, August 13, 1920. Reprinted in Robert Hill, ed., The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Papers, vol. 2 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983), 571–580. The full text, including the preamble, is available online at: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5122/