Courtland Cox attends Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm
By 1967, SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam War was well known, attracting not only domestic but international attention. British mathematician and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell decided to hold an investigation with activists, theorists, and Vietnamese citizens. He and Jean Paul Sartre coordinated the 1967 International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm, Sweden to investigate excessive force and war crimes in Vietnam. At the heart of the effort was the belief that the evidence found by the tribunal could aid the popular anti-war movement in the U.S.
They sought SNCC’s participation. Russell and his fellow organizers invited Stokely Carmichael, SNCC chairman, to represent the group at a May 1967 War Crimes Tribunal. Russell’s drive to hold U.S. leaders accountable for the injustices they chose to ignore seemed relevant to SNCC, and Carmichael responded, “When McNamara [Secretary of Defense] says he is going to draft 30 percent black people out of the ghettos, baby that is nothing but urban removal.”
As part of the preparation for the tribunal, Russell funded a trip by Charlie Cobb and Julius Lester to Vietnam to investigate U.S. war crimes and connect SNCC to the Vietnamese movement. The original idea proposed by Russell was for the two to travel with the Viet Cong, comparing what was similar and dissimilar. The expanding war prevented that, and Lester and Cobb went to North Vietnam instead.
As they traveled down “bomb alley” from Hanoi toward the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, they kept their minds on the connections between U.S. racism and poverty at home and abroad. During the trip, Cobb wrote in a letter home, “it looks like the Mississippi delta — it really does, only wetter… The houses of course were differently styled but still sharecropper shacks.”
In May, 1967, Courtland Cox substituted for Stokley Carmichael at the tribunal. When the witnesses met in London before convening in Stockholm, he found the differences between their lifestyle and his almost shocking. “I go to this dinner, seven-course dinner, you know, with all sorts of liquor and stuff like that. [Laughing] I’ve just come out of, you know, Alabama…I mean, you don’t know if you’re going to get too full or too drunk.” Sitting next to feminist and writer Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and “all the huge weights of the European intellectual thing,” Cox brought the lived experience of racial violence to the conversation.
This difference would continue throughout the conference. For SNCC delegates Cox and Julius Lester, an important element of the war was how the white power structure forced Black Americans to fight the Vietnamese in order to advance their own power–all while continuing to oppress Blacks home. When Cox pressed the issue of the war and racism, however, his thinking was dismissed. “I trust, gentlemen,” Polish writer and activist Isaac Deutscher interrupted, “that we will not inject race into the discussion.”
Lester believed some of the other participants saw the tribunal as a European affair and didn’t focus enough on the American anti-war movement. He remembered, they “acted as if the war was going to be stopped on Boulevard Saint Germain-des-Pres.”
Over five days of testimonies, the witnesses heard from Vietnamese teachers, rice farmers, and legal experts. One farmer testified, “I heard the explosion behind me. My body caught on fire.” Another took off his shirt to show his back, badly burned from phosphorus bombs. At the end, the tribunal found the U.S. guilty of deliberate bombardment of civilian areas and in violation of the Geneva agreement of 1954.
After the tribunal, the SNCC delegates were targeted for their anti-Vietnam involvement. Cox remembered, “At that point I was put on several lists.” After leaving Stockholm, he recalled, the FBI and CIA “followed me wherever went.”
Arthur Jay Klinghoffer and Judith Apter Klinghoffer, International Citizens’ Tribunals (New York: Palgrave, 2002).
Carl Oglesby, Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement (New York: Scribner, 2008).
Interview with Courtland Cox by Joseph Mosnier, July 8, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Simon Anekwe, “Africa Today: Afro-Americans,” New York Amsterdam News, May 20, 1967, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
“Russell Hits Criticism of War Crimes Tribunal,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1966, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.
“‘Tribunal’ Finds US Guilty of ‘Aggression,'” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1967, SNCC Papers, ProQuest History Vault.