Universal Human Rights Month: A Recommended Reading List

Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

Fannie Lou Hamer

December marks the annual celebration of Universal Human Rights Month. The observance of this month began in 1948 when the U.N. wrote a document called The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document was created after World War II and was used to “properly define what human rights would be protected universally”. The world as a whole still struggles to protect basic human rights, so it’s important that we look to this month as a means of inspiration for the much needed continued work of protecting human rights for all.

To help honor Universal Human Rights Month, we’ve created a recommended reading list that includes some of our books that touch on human rights for various different groups of people.


TEARS, FIRE AND BLOOD: THE UNITED STATES AND THE DECOLONIZATION OF AFRICA

BY JAMES H. MERIWETHER

In the mid-twentieth century, the struggle against colonial rule fundamentally reshaped the world and the lives of the majority of the world’s population. Decolonization, Black and Brown freedom movements, the establishment of the United Nations and NATO, an exploding Cold War, a burgeoning world human rights movement, all became part of the dramatic events that swept through Africa at a furious pace, with fifty nations gaining independence in roughly fifty years. Meanwhile, the United States emerged as the most powerful and influential nation in the world, with the ability—politically, economically, militarily—and principles to help or hinder the transformation of the African continent.  

Tears, Fire, and Blood offers a sweeping history of how the United States responded to decolonization in Africa. 

FEMINISM FOR THE AMERICAS: THE MAKING OF AN INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT

BY KATHERINE M. MARINO

This book chronicles the dawn of the global movement for women’s rights in the first decades of the twentieth century. The founding mothers of this movement were not based primarily in the United States, however, or in Europe. Instead, Katherine M. Marino introduces readers to a cast of remarkable Latin American and Caribbean women whose deep friendships and intense rivalries forged global feminism out of an era of imperialism, racism, and fascism. Six dynamic activists form the heart of this story: from Brazil, Bertha Lutz; from Cuba, Ofelia Domíngez Navarro; from Uruguay, Paulina Luisi; from Panama, Clara González; from Chile, Marta Vergara; and from the United States, Doris Stevens. This Pan-American network drove a transnational movement that advocated women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, maternity rights, and broader self-determination. Their painstaking efforts led to the enshrinement of women’s rights in the United Nations Charter and the development of a framework for international human rights. But their work also revealed deep divides, with Latin American activists overcoming U.S. presumptions to feminist superiority. As Marino shows, these early fractures continue to influence divisions among today’s activists along class, racial, and national lines.

STEEL CLOSETS: VOICES OF GAY, LESBIAN, AND TRANSGENDER STEELWORKERS

BY ANNE BALAY

Even as substantial legal and social victories are being celebrated within the gay rights movement, much of working-class America still exists outside the current narratives of gay liberation. In Steel Closets, Anne Balay draws on oral history interviews with forty gay, lesbian, and transgender steelworkers, mostly living in northwestern Indiana, to give voice to this previously silent and invisible population. She presents powerful stories of the intersections of work, class, gender, and sexual identity in the dangerous industrial setting of the steel mill. The voices and stories captured by Balay–by turns alarming, heroic, funny, and devastating–challenge contemporary understandings of what it means to be queer and shed light on the incredible homophobia and violence faced by many: nearly all of Balay’s narrators remain closeted at work, and many have experienced harassment, violence, or rape. 

BUILDING A LATINO CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: PUERTO RICANS, AFRICAN AMERICANS, AND THE PURSUIT OF RACIAL JUSTICE IN NEW YORK

BY SONIA SONG-HA LEE

In the first book-length history of Puerto Rican civil rights in New York City, Sonia Lee traces the rise and fall of an uneasy coalition between Puerto Rican and African American activists from the 1950s through the 1970s. Previous work has tended to see blacks and Latinos as either naturally unified as “people of color” or irreconcilably at odds as two competing minorities. Lee demonstrates instead that Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City shaped the complex and shifting meanings of “Puerto Rican-ness” and “blackness” through political activism. African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers came to see themselves as minorities joined in the civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, and the Black Power movement–until white backlash and internal class divisions helped break the coalition, remaking “Hispanicity” as an ethnic identity that was mutually exclusive from “blackness.”

CIVIL RIGHTS UNIONISM: TOBACCO WORKERS AND THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY IN THE MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY SOUTH

BY ROBERT R. KORSTAD

Drawing on scores of interviews with black and white tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Robert Korstad brings to life the forgotten heroes of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO. These workers confronted a system of racial capitalism that consigned African Americans to the basest jobs in the industry, perpetuated low wages for all southerners, and shored up white supremacy. 

Galvanized by the emergence of the CIO, African Americans took the lead in a campaign that saw a strong labor movement and the reenfranchisement of the southern poor as keys to reforming the South–and a reformed South as central to the survival and expansion of the New Deal. In the window of opportunity opened by World War II, they blurred the boundaries between home and work as they linked civil rights and labor rights in a bid for justice at work and in the public sphere.

WINDOW ON FREEDOM: RACE, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS, 1945-1988

EDITED BY BRENDA GAYLE PLUMMER

The civil rights movement in the United States drew strength from supporters of human rights worldwide. Once U.S. policy makers–influenced by international pressure, the courage of ordinary American citizens, and a desire for global leadership–had signed such documents as the United Nations charter, domestic calls for change could be based squarely on the moral authority of doctrines the United States endorsed abroad. 

This is one of the many fascinating links between racial politics and international affairs explored in Window on Freedom. Broad in chronological scope and topical diversity, the ten original essays presented here demonstrate how the roots of U.S. foreign policy have been embedded in social, economic, and cultural factors of domestic as well as foreign origin. They argue persuasively that the campaign to realize full civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities in America is best understood in the context of competitive international relations.

RECOGNITION, SOVREIGNTY STRUGGLES, AND INDIGENOUS RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES: A SOURCEBOOK

EDITED BY AMY E. DEN OUDEN AND JEAN M O’BRIEN

This engaging collection surveys and clarifies the complex issue of federal and state recognition for Native American tribal nations in the United States. Den Ouden and O’Brien gather focused and teachable essays on key topics, debates, and case studies. Written by leading scholars in the field, including historians, anthropologists, legal scholars, and political scientists, the essays cover the history of recognition, focus on recent legal and cultural processes, and examine contemporary recognition struggles nationwide.

THE ABORTION RIGHTS CONTROVERSY IN AMERICA: A LEGAL READER

EDITED BY N.E.H. HULL, WILLIAMJAMES HOFFER AND PETER CHARLES HOFFER

Beginning with the introduction of abortion law in the nineteenth century, this reader includes important documents from nearly two hundred years of debate over abortion. These legal briefs, oral arguments, court opinions, newspaper reports, opinion pieces, and contemporary essays are introduced with headnotes that place them in historical context. Chapters cover the birth control movement, changes in abortion law in the 1960s, Roe v. Wade, the Hyde Amendment and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, state and federal regulation of abortion practices, and the freedom of speech cases surrounding anti-abortion clinic protests. The first section of each chapter sets the stage and explains the choice of documents.

This rich, balanced collection is an indispensable reference tool for the study of one of the most passionate debates in American history.