Strange Fruit at the United Nations

51 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2018

See all articles by Ursula Doyle

Ursula Doyle

Northern Kentucky University, Chase College of Law

Date Written: February 26, 2018


The UN was founded, in 1945, to rid the world of the scourge of war but also to recognize and to vindicate the rights of every human in virtue of their humanity. At the time of the organization’s founding, “Jim Crow” -- a scheme designed to repress African Americans -- reigned throughout the American South. Jim Crow was especially characterized by the act of lynching, the extrajudicial killing, often, of African American males. Frequently the lynching was committed by hanging its subject from a tree. Some came to know the persons hanged from the tree as “strange fruit.” During the UN’s early years, the civil rights organizations the National Negro Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Civil Rights Congress sought UN assistance in vindicating African Americans’ fundamental rights. But even during some of the worst days of Jim Crow, the UN was largely silent on matters expressly related to African Americans. In 1946, four African Americans were shot execution-style by Caucasian men after one of the African Americans alleged rape against one of the soon-to-be executioners. This event received substantial international attention. In 1955, Emmett Till. This 14-year-old boy was shot, mutilated and drowned, after reportedly whistling at a Caucasian woman. This case, too, was broadcast internationally. The world was well-aware of events in the United States regarding its largest racial minority. This article explores and evaluates the opportunities taken -- and not -- by each relevant UN organ to address Jim Crow practices, during the period 1945 to 1965. Part I, “the United Nations,” discusses the UN’s founding. It also explores the reasons for creating this body and how the Charter reflects the interests of powerful stakeholders. Additionally, it discusses the functions, powers and limitations of each of its principal organs. Part II, “the United States,” discusses African American history and the laws designed to circumscribe African American life. Part III, “Strange Fruit at the United Nations,” considers the efforts within some UN entities to combat racial segregation and discrimination. It also considers the avenues that the UN might have taken to specifically address Jim Crow. This section especially focuses on the opportunities posed by the International Court of Justice.

Keywords: United Nations, Jim Crow, United States, International Court of Justice, International Law, International Human Rights Law, Human Rights

Suggested Citation

Doyle, Ursula, Strange Fruit at the United Nations (February 26, 2018). Howard Law Journal, Vol. 61, No. 187, 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Ursula Doyle (Contact Author)

Northern Kentucky University, Chase College of Law ( email )

Nunn Drive
Highland Heights, KY 41099
United States

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