In 1951, William Patterson, the national secretary of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a communist affiliated legal organization, presented the United Nations with a petition charging the United States government, and state and local governments, with committing genocide against Black Americans. The petition, at over 200-pages long, accused legal and government authorities of blatantly ignoring, and in some cases actively encouraging, systematic violence, often leading to murder, of Black Americans. In 1946, the National Negro Congress (NNC), another communist affiliate, presented a similar petition to the UN Secretary-General, but it did not receive much attention. A year later, encouraged by W.E.B. Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offered its own petition. This one captured the attention of the press and several countries. But Du Bois’ growing radicalism and disagreements with NAACP leader Walter White led to a confrontation and his expulsion from the NAACP. Under White’s leadership, the NAACP began to support American Foreign policy and anti-communism, effectively neutralizing the petition. The CRC’s document, titled We Charge Genocide was accompanied by a media blitz that guaranteed it would get the media’s attention, and as the CRC hoped, support from Black Americans at a time when the organization was under attack from anti-communists.
As part of its campaign, the CRC publicized its accusations that the US government attempted to destroy “all or part” of the Black population in a series of leaflets and flyers. The documents listed “thousands of criminal acts” against Black Americans perpetrated by KKK members, “Dixiecrat Sheriffs,” and other officials who were never punished because of federal official indifference. The media campaign listed some of the more egregious cases, including that of Mack Ingram. Ingram, a 44-year-old sharecropper from North Carolina was arrested and convicted for “intent to commit assault” after he allegedly looked at a 17-year-old white girl. In Florida, sheriff Willis V. McCall killed two Black men while they were being transported to trial. The men were falsely accused of rape and the CRC was convinced the men would have been exonerated had they made it to the courtroom. While the petition listed case after case of Black men being falsely accused of rape or “intent,” there were also several cases of white rapists of Black women being exonerated by all-white juries. The CRC listed the use of force to ensure Black compliance to Jim Crow as a major offense, making a thorough and damning indictment of American racism.
Poet, actress, and CRC member Beulah Richardson became an outspoken supporter and promoter of the petition. Richardson is probably best known to contemporary audiences as the actress Beah Richards who played Baby Suggs in the 1998 film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s book Beloved. Richardson’s later success as an actress, including an Oscar nomination and two Emmy awards, has obscured her early years as a radical activist. Dayo Gore argues that Richardson’s art was directly influenced by the group of Black women radicals in her social and political milieu in the 1940s and 1950s. Even while Cold War tensions marginalized radical Black voices, Richardson, along with writers like Lorraine Hansberry and activist Louise Patterson, demonstrated how Black artistic expression intersected with radical political action to influence Black feminists across generations. For Gore, Richardson’s poetry and activism sustained her later career in acting and politics.
In 1951, the same year the petition was introduced, Richardson’s poem “A Black Woman Speaks…of White Womanhood, White Supremacy, of Peace” garnered praise and attention for its portrayal of Black women as agents of change. According to Erik S. McDuffie, the poem, along with Claudia Jones’ article on the neglect of Black women in communist party organizing, inspired the founding of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. William Patterson in particular found Richardson’s poem full of “great political wisdom and truth,” and a challenge to white women who ignored racist attacks as well as calls for unity between Black and white activists. Patterson expressed his great desire for Richardson to write a marching song that exposed America’s crimes while calling for united action.
That marching song came in the form of a performance poem titled “Genocide.” The poem was written to support Patterson’s and the CRC’s We Charge Genocide petition and was performed several times in the months leading up to its delivery to United Nation officials in December 1951. It recounts the many crimes committed against Black Americans, starting with the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. Part one, titled “Mood: Urgent and Angry,” described the enslaved labor used to build the nation, and the pain felt by the enslaved. Richardson repeated the refrain “This government’s policy towards me is everchanging but unchanged” throughout to emphasize the continuity between slave policy and segregation.
Part one described the violence, pain, and humiliation meted out by white America as part of government policy. American democracy, she wrote, was built on Black labor and lives and even after emancipation, the exploitation merely took on other forms. She writes, Black America is “the constitution unamended” and the “citizen undefended.” In the poem Richardson emphasized that racial disunity was necessary to continue Black exploitation and thus government policy “make of me the enemy,” she lamented. Richardson demonstrated racism as a learned behavior by describing how a child could grow to be a Klansmen, governor, general, or president because his government’s policy cast Black as evil. But what robs Black people of their life, robs white people of their humanity, thus Richardson appealed to white audiences to understand the need for unity in the face of divisive and murderous government policy. She asked her white audience “tell me, has white supremacy ended your poverty, your pain, your misery?”
Part two, titled “The Dirge” listed the crimes against Black America in greater detail, beginning in 1945. Richardson listed some of the names from the CRC’s petition, including Dennis Harris, Jessie Payne, Lilla Bell Carter, and others. After the names, she described how they were killed, but she also questioned what was lost. Carter, a sixteen-year-old girl, was raped and murdered in South Carolina. Richardson wondered if she could have been an explorer or architect. Lilla Bell, raped and murdered by an insurance agent, was left in the water to appear like she drowned. But the result was the same, another person with talent that had no chance at a future. All of these deaths, at least two thousand in only six years, supported the claim “This is Genocide!”
In the final section Richardson began by reminding her audience that there were at least two thousand unpunished murderers in the United States, and those who did not protect the dead were the murders’ accomplices. Using the legalistic language from the Schenck v. United States case that created a legal foundation to attack communists, she declared a “clear and present danger” in the United States simultaneously attacking American racism and anti-communism. In her final analysis, Richardson incited all people, Black and white to “wake up, get in the fight!” She attacked the legal lynching of American communists who were speaking out against the genocide, the United State’s endless military actions in the Cold War, and the hypocrisy in claiming American democracy abroad while perpetuating “lynching policy” at home.
Richardson’s first performance of “Genocide” was at the launch of We Charge Genocide in the United States on November 12. Days before the performance, the Daily Worker ran an interview with Richardson asking about her inspiration for the poem. She knew that government policy sustained white supremacy, but she claimed that it was William Patterson and the CRC that made the case very clear that the government was responsible for Black genocide. She told the paper that Black life in America meant “death…in a hundred thousand forms” all supported by the government. She claimed her inspiration was the people who were left behind after the killings and those who were fighting back, including Patterson and the CRC.
Despite Patterson’s and Richardson’s efforts, the CRC petition did not arouse much concern among Americans. The CRC would also begin to divert resources away from the effort, as government harassment began to consume more of its time. By 1956, the CRC officially dissolved. Richardson eventually took on the stage name Beah Richards and would find success in television and film. She died in September 2000, her political work largely forgotten. Her obituaries in the New York Times and The Guardian failed to mention her years of work with the CRC or the Sojourners for Truth and Freedom, or the poems that were so influential to Cold War radicals. By omitting her political activism in her legacy, what is missing is a true understanding of Richardson’s political and artistic depth and its influence on later generations of civil rights activists. Richardson’s generation, written off because of anti-communist hysteria, brought Black America’s plight to an international audience and linked the civil rights struggle to global movements for self-determination, dignity, and equality.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.