On August 24th, 1950, President Harry S. Truman appointed Chicago lawyer Edith Sampson
to the permanent U.S. delegation to the United Nations. She became the first Black woman to ever serve in the capacity.
Edith’s life was a series of personal and social milestones. (October 13, 1901– October 8, 1979). The first black women to preside over a courtroom as a judge, Sampson served the state of Illinois—and the entire United States—in a variety of roles spanning five decades. She conceded that Black people did not have equal rights in America but she said, “I would rather be a Negro in America than a citizen in any other land”, not a popular stance in the years following.
Her youth was fraught with struggles in growing up in a large family. She persevered and over time she opened her own law offices in 1925.
By 1949, Sampson was part of the Round-the-World Town Meeting which was a program that sent twenty-six prominent Americans on a world tour meeting leaders of foreign countries and participating in public political debates and radio broadcasts. In these meetings, Sampson sought to counter the propaganda in the Soviet Union during the Cold War regarding the treatment of African Americans in the United States. During one meeting in India, she said:
The question is, quite bluntly, “Do Negroes have equal rights in America?” My answer is no, we do not have equal rights in all parts of the United States. But let’s remember that 85 years ago Negroes in America were slaves and were 100 per cent illiterate. And the record shows that the Negro has advanced further in this period than any similar group in the entire world. You here get considerable misinformation about American Negroes and hear little or nothing that is constructive.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said that her actions “created more good will and understanding in India than any other single act by any American”. Sampson also attacked Soviet communism directly by comparing it to slavery and accusing, in particular, the Soviet Union of enslaving prisoners of war from World War II. In a report circulated by the American government, Sampson reportedly told Soviet Ambassador Yakov Malik: “We Negroes aren’t interested in Communism…We were slaves too long for that. Nobody is happy with second-class citizenship, but our best chances are in the framework of American democracy.”
As a result of the Town Meeting tour and her other public speaking, President Truman appointed Sampson as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations on 24 August 1950, making her the first African-American to officially represent the United States at the UN. She was a member of the UN’s Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee, where she lobbied for continued support of work in social welfare. She also presented a resolution pressuring the Soviet Union to repatriate the remainder of its Prisoners of War from World War II. She was reappointed to the UN in 1952 and served until 1953. During the Eisenhower Administration, she was a member of the U.S. Commission for UNESCO. In 1961 and 1962, she became the first black U.S. representative to NATO.
Sampson began to express great dissent from American policies in 1959–1960. In a speech to African American high school graduates, she said “We have convinced ourselves, because it seemed so necessary, that the battle against injustice could be won piece by piece through changes in law, through court appeals, through persistent but cautious pressures. We were mistaken. No–we were wrong. Ours was not the only way. It was not even the best way. By 1969 she had apparently regained her faith in working within the system, saying in a speech: “We learned that we could work within the establishment, the system, without necessarily knuckling under to it.”
I posted this for people to see how far we’ve come and have yet to go. She worked within the system she was given. She persevered. As our Congress debates “voting rights,” let’s hope they restore what’s been destroyed. There are No freedoms without all participating in safe and secure fair voting. This is Edith’s legacy.