“I AM A MAN” proclaimed the placards carried by striking Memphis sanitation workers in February 1968. In addition to their specific demands for fair working conditions, the protesters’ signs reminded the world of their fundamental dignity and human rights. With a simple courageous message, they connected their individual struggles to the worldwide movement to protect the basic rights of all human beings.

Today, human rights values, standards, and strategies are becoming an increasingly powerful force for achieving racial justice in the United States. Human rights standards are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent UN conventions and treaties. Together, these documents guarantee more vigorous and affirmative rights than the U.S. Constitution. (International Mechanisms) Talking about human rights builds alliances across social divisions and overcomes resistance to racial justice by drawing upon a broad consensus that all people are, by the fact of their humanity, entitled to health, education, housing, food, and other rights.

In the United States, the term “human rights” refers to:

  • a felt belief in the inherent dignity and equality of all people;
  • a set of ethical values and standards, codified in international law;
  • a system of international courts and mechanisms to enforce and monitor agreements underpinning that law; and
  • a set of specific advocacy principles, strategies and methods.

Collectively, these values, standards and strategies make up the human rights framework. A human rights approach intentionally incorporates some or all of these elements into social justice advocacy and organizing.

At the Using Human Rights to Achieve Racial Justice convening, racial justice was defined as work that addresses issues that have a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Racial justice advocacy combats all forms of racism by establishing policies that ensure equitable power, opportunities, and outcomes for all.