W. E. B. Du Bois to Walter White

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W. E. B. Du Bois to Walter White

1 July 1948

Subject: Meeting with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt—NAACP Petition

On June 30, I was asked to call on Mrs. Roosevelt at 2 Park Avenue, the offices of the United States Delegation to the United Nations. I talked with her for about one-half hour. She represented Senator Warren Austin, the head of the United States Delegation. What she said was in answer to a letter that I had written to Senator Austin on October 28, 1947. The essence of that letter was as follows:

Replying to your letter of October 21, I am taking the opportunity of sending you a copy of our petition to the United Nations. I trust that you will do your best to have this matter put on the agenda of the United Nations Assembly, either this year or next. I think it would be an excellent thing if the United States was able to say to the world:

We are perfectly willing to be criticized as to our democracy and to give the public a chance to know what that criticism is.

Senator Austin wrote: "Upon receipt of a copy of your petition, we will be glad to refer it to the Department of State for appropriate consideration."

Mrs. Roosevelt said that the State Department had communicated its decision, and as Mr. Austin was engaged on the Security Council, she was representing him. The Department of State was of the opinion that it would be unwise to put our Petition on the agenda of the next Assembly for discussion, since no good could come from such a discussion. On the other hand, the Declaration of Human Rights, and it was to be hoped also the Covenant, would come up at that session and be discussed and possibly assented to.

I replied that I realized that no international action on our plight was probable nor, indeed, expected; but that I thought that the world ought to know just exactly what the situation was in the United States, so that they would not be depending upon vague references concerning our race problem, but would have factual statements before them; and that if the United States was unwilling itself to put the matter before the Assembly, that one or two other nations had expressed the possibility of their doing this.

Mrs. Roosevelt thought that this would be embarrassing; that it would be seized upon by the Soviet Government and others as an excuse for attacking the United States. Mrs. Roosevelt said that already, several times, she had been compelled to answer attacks upon the United States for its race problem by pointing out the fact that other countries had made similar mistakes. In case, therefore, the matter was discussed in the Assembly, she and her colleagues would be put in the unpleasant position of having to defend the United States. The situation then might be so unpleasant that she would feel it necessary to resign from the United States Delegation to the United Nations.4

I expressed the opinion that the placing of facts before an international body need not of necessity be a matter of embarrassment. Naturally, it might be taken up by persons and organizations unfriendly to the United States; but that that was not a reason for suppressing the truth. That in the early days of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, when we proposed to expose the facts concerning lynching and discrimination, there many good friends of the Negro race who advised against it and said that it would bring unfavorable criticism upon us. Nevertheless, we insisted and I think that we did right.

Mrs. Roosevelt asked that if any action was taken toward bringing the matter up for discussion before the Assembly of the United Nations, that she be notified as soon as possible, so that she could prepare to act accordingly. I promised that such notification would certainly be given to her.


1. See header Document 285 for earlier signs of the growing rift between Du Bois and White. See also, A. Black, Casting, 100-102; Lewis, 531-34; Janken, 309-13.

2. W. E. B. Du Bois to Warren Austin, 10 and 14 October 1947, and 4 February 1948, NAACP, DLC.

3. Richard Winslow to James Hendrick, 25 May 1948, AERP.

4. In September 1948, Du Bois paraphrased this part of his conversation with ER in a public attack on the NAACP Board of Directors and the Truman administration that ultimately led to his dismissal from the NAACP. According to Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, Du Bois hoped to attend the upcoming UN meeting in Paris as a representative of the association; thus, when the board announced its decision to send Walter White as a consultant to the US delegation on September 7, Du Bois knew that his petition would not be presented to the General Assembly. He then drafted a memo to the board (which he released to the press before submitting it to the board) labeling the decision to send White to Paris, "without a clear, open, public declaration by the board of our position on the Truman foreign policy," an implicit endorsement of the administration's policies which "would, in the long run, align the association with the reactionary, war-mongering colonial imperialism of the present Administration." Finally, he declared that he would never endorse an administration that not only showed a lack of interest in addressing the NAACP's petition, but that also actively "refused … to allow any other nation to bring this matter up." As support for this point of view, Du Bois claimed that "Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt has declared she would probably resign from the United States delegation" if any other nation raised the issue of US race relations in the General Assembly. September 13, the NAACP Board passed a motion at its regularly scheduled board refusing to renew Du Bois's contract: "That in the view of Dr. Du Bois's written refusal to cooperate with the NAACP executive staff of which he is a member in preparation for representation at the forthcoming meeting at the General Assembly of the UN, in view of his distribution of his memorandum of September 7, addressed to this Board, before its consideration by this Board, it is the conclusion of this Board that it will not be in the best interest of the association to continue the employment of Dr. Du Bois beyond his present contract" ("Racial Unit Scored As Aiding Truman," NYT, 9 September 1948, 27; "Negro Group Ousts Its Research Head," NYT, 14 September 1948, 25; Lewis, 534, 677; Janken, 309-13, 317; and NAACP Board Minutes, 13 September 1948, NAACP DLC).

On James Hendrick's Resignation from the United Nations

ER considered James Hendrick a key and valuable resource in her work with the Human Rights Commission, writing Dean Rusk in mid-June "how deeply" she "appreciated the very remarkable work Jim Hendrick has done during this session." She continued, that without "help such as [he] was able to organize, and which he and other people assigned to me were able to give," she doubted that "the results would have been nearly as satisfactory to the Department." She concluded, thanking Rusk for "having some one as able and as easy and as pleasant to work with … assigned to me."1

However, Walter Kotschnig, Hendrick's immediate supervisor at the State Department, did not agree with ER's assessment and on March 31 rated Hendrick's performance as "adequate" rather than "outstanding," taking particular aim at the trait ER praised: "effectiveness in presenting ideas or facts." As the dispute with Kotschnig escalated, Hendrick offered his resignation to the State Department in late June and on July 2, ER sent the following blunt rebuke of Kotschnig's decision and the politics she thought behind it.2 If Kotschnig replied, neither he nor ER kept a copy of his letter.