Human Rights Day: How This Day of Reflection Impacts Every American

“Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.” — Edmund Burke

Next Saturday I’m flying from my Colorado home to spend the Christmas season with my 85-years young Mom in Alabama. When I get to the airport, I know if I’m thirsty I can drink from the water fountain. I can use the rest room if needed. I’m African American but I’ll stay in the same terminal as the white passengers as I wait for my flight. I fly into New Orleans and will rent a car for the 4 hour drive to my Mom’s house. En route I can stop and eat at any place I want. If my flight is late arriving and I don’t want to drive, I can spend the night in any hotel I choose. Most importantly when I watch the national college championship game, I can watch a fully integrated team from the University of Alabama compete. In 1963, then-Governor George Wallace had stood in front of a door at the university to prevent the entrance of two black students. Wallace said “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 

None of these events of my upcoming trip would have been possible during the first part of my life. I grew up in New Jersey but spent summers in the segregated South. This brings me to what I’d like to blog about. December 10 is Human Rights Day. The date of the yearly celebration was chosen to commemorate one of the first major efforts by the United Nations to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As reported in a 1988 article in the New York Times:

“On Dec. 10, 1948, at 3 a.m., the United Nations General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stands to this day as the most widely recognized statement of the rights to which every person on our planet is entitled.

"Then something happened that never happened in the United Nations before or since. The delegates rose to give a standing ovation to a single delegate, a shy, elderly lady with a rather formal demeanor but a very warm smile. Her name, of course, was Eleanor Roosevelt.”

As the chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt along with others played an important role. Each December 10 celebration revolves around a theme. According to the UN web site:

“Human Rights Day presents an opportunity, every year, to celebrate human rights, highlight a specific issue, and advocate for the full enjoyment of all human rights by everyone everywhere.

"This year, the spotlight is on the rights of all people — women, youth, minorities, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, the poor and marginalized — to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making.”

Some of my white friends are very uncomfortable with events like this and others like Black History Month or the Martin Luther King holiday. They tell me they feel these events are “beat up on white people day.” I tell them that is not the intent and remind them if the majority of white Americans had not believed slavery was wrong or there was a need for the civil rights legislation of the 20th century, changes would never have happened.  I’m of the mind that events like those and Human Rights Day are really a celebration of how far we have come and an occasion to honor those who were on the right side of history and to educate those who today are on the wrong side on various human rights issues.

Human rights issues are still very much a part of our world, especially on this day. We have the media screaming about the 40,000 people killed in Syria, but ignoring the  more than 5 million people who have died  as a result of wars in the Congo. We still have people thinking women won’t get pregnant from “a legitimate rape.” We have a young girl shot by the Taliban because she wants to go to school. We think it’s OK to have an all-white male congressional committee discussing woman’s health issues. There are parts of the world where large scale rape of women is considered part of war fighting …. Yeah, there’s still a lot left to do. In spite of that, don’t forget the many men and women around the world who have successfully overcome tyranny in the past. Honor their memories and remind ourselves that freedom can never be taken for granted.

I believe we should never write off someone because of past mistakes. As governor of California during World War II, Earl Warren oversaw the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. In his autobiography he stated: “I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens. Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings I was conscience stricken.” He went on to become the chief Justice of the Supreme Court that eliminated many human rights violations in the U.S. 

In 1979, George Wallace made an unannounced visit to an African American church in Montgomery, Alabama, and stated “I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible before the shooting, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”

Here’s the link to the text of the United Nation’s Human Rights declaration.

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Gail Harris

In 1973 Captain Gail Harris (March ’82), United States Navy (Retired) broke a 200 year old tradition becoming the first woman in Naval History to serve as an Intelligence Officer in a Navy combat job 20 years before federal laws changed making it a common occurrence. At her retirement in December 2001 she was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy. Her 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. She writes a blog on defense topics for the Foreign Policy Association and her book A Woman’s War is available on Amazon.com. The book was been chosen as an Editor’s Pick for 2010 by the Foreign Policy Association. Other career highlights: - Hand picked to lead intelligence support for the 1988 Olympics - While assigned to United States Strategic Command hand picked to provide intelligence support to United States Central Command’s Desert Fox operations and U.S. European Command’s operations in Kosovo. These efforts were much praised by European Command and called “masterful” by the Joint Staff.

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