The Mitchell Lecture - 2010

The Origins of African-American Interests in International Law

The special relationship of African-Americans – historically and in the present day – to international law formed the substance of the 2010 James McCormick Mitchell Lecture, delivered by a renowned international law scholar, Henry J. Richardson III.

Henry J. Richardson III, a professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law, spoke Oct. 27 in O'Brian Hall. His remarks drew from his recently published book The Origins of African-American Interests in International Law (Carolina Academic Press), in which he explores the birth of the African-American international tradition and the roots of African-Americans' stake in international law.

After a welcome from Dean Makau W. Mutua and an introduction by Associate Professor Tara J. Melish, Richardson spoke of the assumptions that undergirded his scholarly book. "In uncovering the origins of these African-American interests," he said, "I had to ask about the international jurisprudence of black folks when whites had not theoretically, morally or politically given them permission to have one. This project had to inquire about a collection of people who from the 16th through the 19th centuries were subjected to an evolving system of exploitative policies, sophisticated captivity and deadly terror. … Subsequently, from the late 20th century to the present day, that same people have been subjected to a stream of demands and methodology which denied that they ever evolved a culture and that they must have no collective identity beyond American citizenship of Civil War vintage. Nevertheless, their forged collective identity has been key to African-American survival and progress."

One challenge, he said, is the lack of a coherent written record especially from the early days of African-American legal interests. Nevertheless, Richardson said, "this early history demonstrates that the race and rights of African-heritage people who became African-Americans have always been international questions. Throughout this narrative, blacks participated in and affected international politics as part of their struggle to survive, to carve out niches of accommodation and to free themselves from slavery and racism as much as possible."

As an example, he cited a story from the end of the War of 1812 about Joseph Savary, who emigrated from Haiti to New Orleans as a freeman. Savary "joined the notable pirate-slash-hired militia band headed by the legendary Jean Lafitte," Richardson said, and played a covert supportive role in Gen. Andrew Jackson's defense of New Orleans against invading British troops.

Savary, Richardson said, joined Gen. Jackson's forces and led a black regiment in the fight. "So here we have a free black man pushed into New Orleans by the Haitian revolution," Richardson said, "steeped in contemporaneous international politics in the Gulf and Mississippi Delta region, and arguably a supporter of U.S. government interests who through his service at New Orleans was consistently making claims to domestic and American law.

"Following his triumph at New Orleans over the British, Gen. Jackson granted permission for all military regiments of his forces to make a post-battle victory march through the city except for the black regiments and certainly excluding the black regiment led by Savary. Savary was incensed by this racial exclusion. He defied the orders excluding his troops and marched his unit through New Orleans anyway, and was not or could not be prevented from doing so.

"He then cut his ties with Jackson and resumed his career of smuggling and related activities with Jean Lafitte. Subsequently he left the Mississippi Delta region to immigrate to South American to fight in Simon Bolivar's revolutionary army.

"Savary's defiance of Jackson's orders excluding his unit from marching in victory through New Orleans expresses a claim to outside law underpinned by a hatred of ungrateful Americans. He claimed the right to fully benefit from the bargain proffered to blacks in that situation and stood against Jackson's and thus the Americans' violation of the international legal principle of conditional black freedom, the promise of compensation and/or proper recognition to blacks who fought to defend territory. The latter two benefits Jackson had explicitly promised black troops in his pre-battle oration.

"Savary's subsequent return to the service of Jean Lafitte expresses a further claim to outside law for the right to establish his own commercial arrangements in defiance of U.S. law and in conjunction with cooperating entrepreneurs in the Delta region. And Savary's emigration to fight with Simon Bolivar represents another claim to outside law: the right of blacks to choose and join military struggles for the freedom of oppressed peoples anywhere in the international community. From many, many such stories has come the birth of African-American interests in international law."

In a more contemporary vein, Richardson suggested that African-Americans would do well to give greater recognition to their longtime appeals to international legal interests. "I suggest, for example, in this 50th anniversary year of the historic civil rights sit-ins, African-Americans could more fully recognize the importance of Martin Luther King as an international human rights leader," he said.

For instance, he said, in 1960 after the Sharpeville Massacre of black residents of South Africa, King spoke publicly against that nation's apartheid regime and drew parallels with American civil rights policy.

Also, "his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize confirmed the global recognition of American civil rights issues as international human rights issues and King's leadership of the civil rights movement as that of a global human rights movement," Richardson said. "His 1967 Riverside Church speech may in its own way be as great as his 'I Have a Dream' speech four years earlier. It was nothing less than King's deliberate argument for the illegality of the Vietnam War under international law, and for the reasons African-Americans and all people must oppose it to restore America's moral vision."