Document 5: Speech Presented to the United Nations on Behalf of Rosa Lee Ingram

Author: Mary Church Terrell  

Date: 21 September 1949

Location: Student File: Mary Church Terrell, Box 1028, File 2, O. C. A.

Document Type: Typed Document


Mary Church Terrell presented this speech to the United Nations at Lake Success, New York, on 21 September 1949. The typed speech was transferred from the Oberlin College Special Collections to the Archives in 2010, and photocopied on 8.5 pH paper, carefully preserved.

Wallace Ingram (from left) stands with Rosa Lee Ingram, Samuel Ingram and Clayton R. Yates. source:
Wallace Ingram (from left) stands with Rosa Lee Ingram, Samuel Ingram and Clayton R. Yates.

The goal of this speech was to draw attention to Rosa Lee Ingram’s situation and to reverse the verdict that sentenced Rosa Lee Ingram (age 40) and her sons Charles (age 17), Wallace (age 16), Sammie Lee (age 14), and James (age 12) to death for killing a white neighbor, John Ethron Stratford (age 64). The Ingram family was originally sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence eventually changed to life imprisonment1. On 4 November 1947, Rosa Lee Ingram, a Black sharecropper and mother of twelve, was approached by the neighboring white sharecropper, John Ethron Stratford, in southwest Georgia near the small town of Ellaville. Stratford confronted Ingram with a rifle after discovering several of her hogs and mules in his corn field. Stratford also sexually harassed Ingram. A fight ensued between the two and escalated when Ingram’s sons came to their mother’s defense after she was hit repeatedly with the butt of the rifle. Stratford, who suffered several blows to the head, died that same day and the Ingrams were arrested for murder and mob violence.

Terrell led the delegation that presented to the UN in 1949 as well as another, the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, which fought for the fair trial and release of the Ingram family. Terrell continued to support the family through their imprisonment, raising $45,125 for them, and holding Mother’s Day rallies.

Terrell’s defense of Ingram is an example of her activism for racial justice. The NAACP, of which she was a charter member, campaigned for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill when it was introduced to Congress in 1918. Terrell denounced “lynchings in a 1904 article as ‘wild and diabolical carnvial[s] of blood,’ … and predicted that white Americans’ lawlessness would ruin the nation’s high standing in the ‘civilized world’ and implicated all whites in the crime of lynching.”2 Black Americans focused on the contrast between the United States’ promotion of democratic values abroad and the reality of lynching and anti-Black violence when petitioning the United Nations.

The speech was organized with a petition written by W.E.B. DuBois3. DuBois and Terrell’s relationship was over forty years old; they attended the Afro-American Council in 1905 together, a precursor to the NAACP4. DuBois referenced the Cold War explicitly, stating, “We Americans can send Communists to jail and drive honest citizens to suicide, but can we stand before the world and defend the life imprisonment of Rosa Ingram as an example of the democracy which the United Nations is teaching?”5

Terrell argued that the government’s inability to solve racial violence increased the country’s vulnerability to communism, and hearing her case would deter Soviet influence. She “proposed that the government actually enforce the Constitution’s ‘lofty principles of equality and opportunity’ rather than allow for its repeated violation.”6

This petition was neither the first nor the last attempt by the NAACP and Black Americans to use the United Nations to garner support for their human rights.7 As Carol Anderson writes, “Human rights … had the language and philosophical power to address not only the political and legal inequality that African Americans endured, but also the education, healthcare, housing, and employment needs that haunted the black community.”8 However, the conflation of human rights and communism derailed many of these petitions and campaigns, given the unprecedented surveillance of presumed activity, despite Terrell’s clear faith in democracy and the Constitution.

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Rosa Ingram’s trial was held under dubious conditions with unsubstantial evidence; it was selected by the Pittsburgh Courier as the top Black news story of 1948.9 This abhorrent trial and verdict was not an anomaly, especially given that the United States “inserted the domestic jurisdiction clause into the UN Charter to keep the UN from investigating human rights abuses, especially in the South.” 10Attempting to deflect accusations of domestic injustice during a time of international attention, the United States effectively subverted the already small power of the UN to its advantage. The case attracted a large following as well as numerous support groups that raised money and awareness in the hopes of funding a successful appeal of the verdict.




        Seventy-five persons witness the Ceremony. [sic]

As students of History [sic], the members of the General Assembly of the United United Nations are well versed in the efforts made by human beings throughout the long centuries to secure freedom from tyrants and deliverance from injustices of various kinds. Although the United States of America is called the “Greatest Democracy on Earth”, [sic] the conditions under which thousands of colored people are forced to live are as unjust, cruel and shocking as any which history records.

        This is not because the Constitution fails to make equitable and just provisions for all its citizens, but because these provisions of the Constitution are violated with impunity every day, especially in that section where slavery existed for nearly 300 years. Please permit me briefly to cite examples of disabilities and injustices of which colored people are victims in many parts of the United States. Mrs. Rosa Lee Ingram’s conviction and sentence are a case in point. Here is a woman convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair by a Georgia Court for a crime she did not commit. Obeying the orders of Stratford, a white sharecropper living next to her place, she went to drive home her pigs and mules which he complained were on his land. As Mrs. Ingram entered Stratford’s place, he met her armed with a shot gun and beat her over the head with it until the blood ran. Her two little boys 12 and 13 years old stood by crying and pleading, until a son 16 years old ran from the house, wrenched the gun from Stratford’s hand and struck him with it. The man fell to the ground and later died. There is no proof that the son’s blow killed the man who was beating his mother, and he might have died from a heart attack.12 This mother of 14 children, nine of whom are being cared for by charity, and her two sons are now serving a sentence of life imprisonment in one of the worst penitentiaries in Georgia. Under similar circumstances it is inconceivable that such an unjust sentence would have been imposed upon a white woman and her two sons. The colored women of the United States are appealing to the Commission on Human Rights carefully to investigate Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, feeling sure that when the facts are known justice will prevail and Rosa Lee Ingram with her two sons will be freed from the jail13 in which they have been unjustly incarcerated for more than two years.

        Colored women in the United States are confronted by obstacles and perils of various sizes and kinds, not only because they are women, but because they are colored women are difficulties and disappointments meeting them at every turn. The white women of the country have only one handicap to hurdle—that of sex. Colored men have just one handicap to hurdle—that of race. Colored women have two high, hard handicaps to hurdle—both race and sex. Generally speaking, a colored woman who is the victim of a white man’s advances or violence has no redress in the courts.

        The brutal and shocking manner in which colored people are lynched in the United States places a foul stain upon the country’s escutcheon and causes the world either to doubt or to sneer at our claim of being a Democracy [sic]. The world’s condemnation of such lawlessness and cruelty is increased because it is generally known that the perpetrators of these crimes are rarely punished. On several occasions the bodies of colored women have been ripped open [,] their babies snatched out and thrown into a river nearby or on the ground.

        Thousands of colored people in the United States are disfranchised in the section where the majority live. As a result of this flagrant violation of the 14th15 and 15th16 amendments to the Constitution, laws are passed in the Congress of the Unites States by representatives and Senators [sic] who have been illegally elected because the colored citizens of their respective states are not allowed to vote. One wonders whether laws by an elective assembly can be valid when a number of legislators voting for them have been illegally elected.

        Where there are segregated schools, the money spent for the education of colored children in the public schools is often only half or less than half of that spent on the education of white children, and many of the schools which colored children are obliged to attend are dilapidated shacks, utterly lacking in provisions for the comfort of children and are often a menace to their health.

        The living and housing conditions of thousands of colored people beggar description. There are several reasons why colored people are obliged to live in squalid surroundings who might otherwise live in comfortable homes. One of the reasons is that solely because of the prejudice against their race thousands of well trained colored people are unable to secure employment, so that they can earn a living and help support their families. For instance, in the Capital [sic] of the United States the Capital [sic] Transit Company refuses to employ colored men to operate the street cars and buses. I want especially to call attention to conditions affecting colored people who live in the Capital [sic] of the United States. With the exception that there are no Jim Crow street cars and buses, the status of the Colored people in the National Capital [sic] is no better than that of the colored people in Georgia or Mississippi.

        In the Capitol of the Greatest Democracy on Earth colored people are barred from hotels, restaurants and other eating places. Until the 5 and 10 cent stores were opened, a colored person could not get a bite to eat, in Washington, no matter how hungry he might be unless he could find a restaurant operated especially for his group. Even today in the 5 and 10 cent stores in Washington colored people are obliged to stand at a counter to get a sandwich or a cold drink on one side of the store; but are not allowed to sit at a counter on the opposite side of the store to eat a meal.17

        Colored people are excluded from movies attended by white people and can attend only those operated for their own group. For a long time there has been no theatre in the Capitol of the United States because the only one in the city refused to admit colored people and the Actors Equity voted not to accept engagements there. The public schools of the National Capitol are segregated, and in many cases the provisions for the education of colored children are inferior to those given to the white children. The colored children are not provided with recreation facilities equal to those enjoyed by the white children. Last summer the Recreation Board refused to agree with Mr. Krug of the Interior Department to operate them on an inter-racial basis without discrimination. The hoodlums and gangsters objected violently to the presence of colored children in the swimming pools, some of whom were viciously attacked. Because of the riotous situation which developed one of the swimming pools was closed during the hottest days of the season. By some this was considered a great victory for the Race Haters [sic] of Washington who are determined to deny colored people any benefit of which they can be deprived.

        Three years ago the Washington Branch of the American Association of University Women gave a shocking exhibition of race prejudice by refusing to accept the application for reinstatement presented by a colored woman who had once been a member,18 but had been forced to temporarily withdraw because of pressure of duties. The colored woman whose application for reinstatement had been rejected held an A.B., an A.M., and later on an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Oberlin College and a similar degree from Wilberforce and Howard Universities. She had been one of the first women appointed on the Board of Education in the National Capitol, on which she had served 11 years and had been engaged in many other activities. When the case was taken to Court both the District Court and the Appelate Court rendered the decision that the Washington Branch had a right to exclude anybody it wished. But the delegates to the National Convention of the American Association of University Women at Seattle last June voted 2168 to admit all qualified women without regard to race or religion with only 65 voting against the motion.

        It is a tragedy that the Capitol [sic] of this Democracy [sic] is situated on southern soil and that the citizens of that section are allowed continuously and deliberately to violate the constitution of the United States. It is all the more astounding that colored people living in the National Capitol are subjected to such himillating [humiliating] and irritating conditions, for in 1872 by a popularly elected Assembly a law was passed which would put every Jim Crow restaurant and hotel out of business. Here is the exact wording of that law against discrimination on account of color:

That any restaurant keeper or proprietor, any hotel keeper or proprietor, proprietors or keepers of ice-cream saloons or places where soda-water is kept for sale, or keepers of barber shops and bathing houses, refusing to sell or wait upon any respectable well behaved person, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude, or any restaurant, hotel, ice-cream saloon or soda fountain, barber shop or bathing-house keepers, or proprietors, who refuse under any pretext to serve any well behaved, respectable person, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction in a court having jurisdiction, shall be fined one hundred dollars, and shall  forfeit his or her license as keeper or owner of a restaurant, hotel, ice-cream saloon, or soda fountain, as the case may be, and it shall not be lawful for the Register or any officer of the District of Columbia to issue a license to any person or persons, or to their agent or agents, who shall have forfeited their license under the provisions of this act, until a period of one year shall have elapsed after such forfeiture.

        Leading attorneys in Washington say this law, passed in 1872, has never been repealed. A group of citizens in the National Capitol are now discussing ways and means of having this Anti-Discrimination law enforced.

        This petition is presented to the Human Rights Commission and the General Assembly in the United Nations in behalf of Mrs. Rosa Lee Ingram, a colored woman, who as has already been stated was first sentenced to be hanged for a crime she did not commit, her sentence was afterward changed to life imprisonment. It is a great travesty of justice that Mrs. Ingram is now languishing in a Georgia penitentiary with her two teen-age sons. The colored women of the United States hope and pray that Mrs. Ingram’s case will be thoroughly investigated, that as a result of this investigation justice will be done and Mrs. Ingram with her two sons will soon be freed.

        The conditions under which colored people live in Washington have been described in order to show that even in this Democracy [sic], called the Greatest on Earth [sic], colored men, women and children are the victim of discrimination, segregation, are barred from employment, are humiliated, handicapped and hindered in many ways. If colored people living in the National Capitol [sic] are subjected to such injustice and humiliation, one can easily imagine what the status and fate of colored people and especially colored women must be who live in Georgia or in the other States where slaves were bought and sold for nearly 300 years.

        Definite proof and concrete examples have been presented to show that although the United States has put itself on record as approving the Declaration of Human Rights, it has done little or nothing to enforce the measures which will make it possible for the victims of injustice like Rosa Lee Ingram to enjoy the rights to which the Government has subscribed and for which the Constitution of the Unites States amply provides.

                        Mary Church Terrell

                       September 19, 1949

Transcribed by Mickaela Fouad

1 Carol Anderson, Eyes Off The Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 160.

2 Alison M. Parker, Mary Church Terrell: Woman Suffrage and Civil Rights Pioneer (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2015),  web address, accessed 24 August 2015.

3 W. E. B. DuBois, “A Petition to the Human Rights Commission, UN Economic and Social Council,” 19 September 1949, Reel 22, Papers of Mary Church Terrell, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 6 pp., Women in Social Movements, Web address, accessed 14 July 2015.

4Alison M. Parker, Mary Church Terrell.

5 W.E.B. DuBois, A Petition to the Human Rights Commission, UN Economic and Social Council.

6 Alison M. Parker, Mary Church Terrell.

7 The NAACP brought a petition titled An Appeal to the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress to the General Assembly in 1947 to destroy the illusion of American democracy in the international arena; A famous yet unanswered call to the Civil Rights Commission was presented by Paul Robeson on 17 December 1951, charging the United States with genocide of 15,000,000 Black Americans according to Article II of the UN Genocide Convention: “It is sometimes incorrectly thought that genocide means the complete and definitive destruction of a race or people” (“We Charge Genocide (1951) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed,” Web address, accessed 14 July 2015).

8 Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize, 2.

9 A Black newspaper published from 1907 to 1966.

10 Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize, 47

11 This date is before the usual cited start of the modern Civil Rights movement, which lasted from 1954 to 1968.

12 This account is in keeping with the Ingram family’s description of events during trial. However, law enforcement officials allegedly obtained a different version of events from Mrs. Ingram and two of her sons who described a second round of fighting during which Stratford died. From Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize.

13 Charles (17) was also arrested but had a trial on the day after his mother and brother’s. Charles was released on account of unsubstantial evidence, a fact which underscored unusual guilty verdict that was passed in the other trials. (Charles H. Martin, “Race, Gender, and Southern Justice: The Rosa Lee Ingram Case,” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July, 1985)).

14 On 26 August 1959 Rosa Lee Ingram and her two convicted sons were released on parole. (Charles H. Martin, “Race, Gender, and Southern Justice”).

15 Ratified 9 July 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws.”

16 Ratified 3 February 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

17 Terrell worked tirelessly to desegregate restaurants in Washington, DC, during this time.

18 Terrell is referring to herself. On 17 October 1946, Terrell wrote in her diary that the AAUW had voted not to admit her as a member. She contemplated suing the AAUW, given how qualified she was to be a member (1946 One Year Diary, Mary Church Terrell Papers 30/438 Diaries, O. C. A.).