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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: Volume 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945-1948

In volume one of a planned five-part series, Dr. Allida Black, executive director of The Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights Project at George Washington University, and her team of researchers have assembled an anthology of 410 carefully chosen documents that trace the life and letters of Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) in her attempt to “define, implement, and promote human rights” for all (Introduction, XLII). This volume, now released as a paperback, covers the period immediately after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945to the adoption of the universal declaration of human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. It promises to be a valuable reference work for human rights advocates for years to come.

In the human rights lexicon, ER is most well-known for her work in drafting the UDHR. However, in reading this volume, it becomes clear that this represented a culmination of years of direct advocacy work as an activist, First lady, and diplomat. Black presents the reader with an intimate perspective on a number of human rights themes that were close to ER’s heart, including the enduring support for the rights of women, children, and workers; the promotion of racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance; the protection of refugees and displaced persons; the endorsement of a foreign policy grounded in human rights and democratic principles; the advocacy for a peaceful settlement between Jews and Arabs over the question of Palestine; and, most significantly, the emphasis on the importance of the codification of human rights principles during her work as a united nations (un) delegate and chairperson of the Human Rights Commission.

Informative introductions, historical commentary, and explanatory notes help to elucidate the deeper meaning of the documents without infringing upon the reader’s right of individual interpretation. These notes expand and explain a number of confounding circumstances, such as why Cold War strategic concerns prevented ER’s attendance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) presentation of the Petition on the Denial of Human Rights to Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States and an Appeal to the UN for Redress (Documents: 264-266; Document 285, Note 4) and why the United States supported a Declaration on Human Rights rather than a legally binding international covenant on Human Rights (Documents 289-291). In these instances, ER had suggested that the state department allow NAACP delegates to convey their concerns to the U.N. (Document 266, Note 4), and she supported the drafting of a convention, despite the obvious concern over states’ rights and Senate ratification (Document 238). From the documents presented, it is clear that ER was able to persuade her superiors of the need to acknowledge economic and social rights in addition to political rights (Document 290, Note 2), even if only in a moral but not legal sense. Reading these documents leads the reader to ponder the possibility of more socially just outcomes if the UDHR had been a convention and if minorities had been given the right of individual petition to an International Court of Human Rights (Document 287, 285, Note 5).

In the documents found in this volume ER is depicted as a strong and committed woman who felt a strong sense of duty to the American public and who was optimistic about the future of the United States. She wrote an average of 150 letters a day, and during her post-White House years, she received no less than 100 and sometimes 300 to 400 letters a day (Document 74). Black and her team have carefully selected letters that capture ER’s vision of human rights and democracy at home:

If we really believe in democracy, we must face the fact that equality of opportunity is basic to any kind of democracy. Equality of opportunity means that all of our people, not just the white people... must have decent homes, a decent standard of health, and educational opportunities to develop their abilities as far as they are able... (Document 151)

Her words are as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1946. This collection of documents represent ER’s human rights legacy, which will not be forgotten. And as the then-senator Hillary Rodham Clinton concludes in her foreword, “I hope her words will be a call to action.”

 

--- Jerusa Ali 

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