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Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights

Racial justice did not always concern Eleanor Roosevelt. Although she began her social activism working with the immigrant communities of the Rivington Street Settlement House in 1903, ER began to recognize racial discrimination only after she moved to the White House in 1933.

As she traveled the nation, ER witnessed the seemingly intractable hardships wrought by the Great Depression. Lorena Hickok's field reports detailed the inadequacies of Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs and brought individual stories of personal hardship to ER's attention. And although ER had visited African Americans when she toured poverty stricken areas the summer after she became First Lady, she did not recognize the depth of institutional racism until she pressured the Subsistence Homestead Administration to admit African Americans to Arthurdale. Her intervention failed and she invited NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White and the presidents of African American universities to the White House to discuss the situation. This unprecedented meeting quickly became a tutorial on racial discrimination and lasted until midnight. ER then pressured National Recovery administrator Donald Richberg to investigate the raced-based wage differentials implemented by southern industries and asked Navy secretary Claude Swanson why blacks were confined to mess hall assignments.

ER embraced a civil rights agenda which accepted segregation and championed equal opportunity. Quality education became her top public priority. As she told the Conference on Negro Education, "wherever the standard of education is low, the standard of living is low" and urged states to address the inequities in public school funding. Her symbolic outreach generated a strong response from African Americans. The African American press and a strong communication network extolled her efforts. By January 1934, she received thousands of letters describing racial violence, poverty and homelessness exacerbated by racial discrimination, and pleading for some type of assistance. She frequently forwarded some of these letters to Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams, to whom she had already sent a list of suggestions on ways to include African Americans more fully within Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs.

FDR aides tolerated ER's intercessions, but became incensed when she supported Walter White's relentless efforts to secure administration support for the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. The bill had been introduced in early 1934, and while FDR agreed with its sentiments, he did nothing to urge its passage. A frustrated White turned to ER for advice and additional pressure. Her support not only frustrated FDR, but enraged press secretary Steve Early who sent ER a strong memo condemning White's single-mindedness. The tension within the White House increased when Claude Neal was lynched in October. Despite her best efforts, ER could not convince FDR to lend public support to the bill for fear of alienating the senior southern senators, or to argue that lynching was covered under the Lindbergh kidnaping statute. In protest, White resigned his position with the Virgin Islands Advisory Council and ER once again found herself defending him against FDR and Early's anger. And when White asked her to attend the NAACP-hosted art exhibit entitled "A Commentary on Lynching," ER, although concerned about alienating Congress, lent her public support to this depiction of white mob violence. Southern critics, led by Senator Eugene Talmadge, seized the opportunity to attack FDR through ER's support of the NAACP and throughout 1935 published photos of ER with blacks in The Georgia World. Rumors circulated throughout the South of Eleanor Clubs, an ER inspired organization of black domestics urging them not to work for white women, so frequently that they became treated as fact. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was so offended by her actions that he became convinced that she had black blood. Other Americans did as well and wrote to ask if this was true only to receive a reply from ER which said that her family had lived so long in the nation that she could not answer the question with certainty.

Mary McLeod Bethune, whom ER had met in 1927 at an education conference and whom ER urged be appointed to the National Youth Administration in 1935, also helped shape ER's understanding of the problems facing black Americans. She brought lists of requests for ER's intervention when the two met and often sent reports, novels and other reading material to ER's attention. An extremely close relationship developed between the two women. ER's decision to challenge the segregation ordinance at the 1938 convening of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham was based partly on her desire to sit with Bethune. ER later credited her deep affection for Bethune with helping her move beyond her racial awkwardness and often called Bethune her "closest friend in her own age group."

Young, outspoken blacks also shaped ER's perspectives. Richard Wright's collection of short stories depicting mob violence, Uncle Tom's Children, so moved ER that she agreed both to help publicize the book and to endorse Wright's application for a Guggenheim fellowship to complete Native Son. When Howard University students picketed lunch stands near the university that denied them service, ER praised their courage and sent them money to continue their public education programs. ER also developed a life long friendship with Pauli Murray, whose outspoken critical letters to FDR first drew ER's attention. By the late thirties, the two women had developed what Murray called a friendship grounded in "confrontation by typewriter." By 1940, the two women worked together to promote National Sharecroppers Week, to organize the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax and to defend sharecropper Odell Waller against charges of premeditated murder. Although their struggle to save Waller from execution failed, Murray and ER continued their close collaboration, with Murray's report to Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women capping a thirty-year association.

Ironically, the event for which ER received the most press was the issue upon which she took the least public action. ER had invited the contralto Marian Anderson to perform at the White House in 1936 and had lavishly praised her talents in "My Day." In late 1938, she had invited the diva to perform for the forthcoming visit by the British monarchs and had agreed to present the Spingarn Medal to Anderson at the NAACP's annual convention. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall in the spring of 1939, ER initially refused to get involved, writing Walter White that the DAR thought her much too liberal anyway and that she would have minimal influence on the organization. Yet a month after White's request, ER resigned from the DAR and used her February 27, 1939 "My Day" column as a forum for the announcement. Even though ER refrained from naming the organization or the issue involved, the column made the front pages of more than four hundred newspapers. ER's resignation from the DAR not only put the organization on the defensive but also transformed the incident from a local slight to one of national importance. While folklore credits ER with recommending the Lincoln Memorial for the site of the Easter concert, ER's documented contributions have a greater impact. She pressured radio stations which carried her broadcasts to cover the event live, urged the NAACP to use the radio broadcasts as fund-raising events, and asked her readers why they cursed Hitler but suppressed Anderson.

Aryanism increased her disgust with American racism. By 1939, ER decided to attack the hypocritical way in which the nation dealt with racial injustice. She wanted her fellow citizens to understand how their guilt in "writing and speaking about democracy and the American way without consideration of the imperfections within our system with regard to its treatment . . . of the Negro" encouraged racism. Americans, she told Ralph Bunche in an interview for Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma, wanted to talk "only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet." Such withdrawal only fueled violent responses; Americans must therefore recognize "the real intensity of feeling" and "the amount of intimidation and terrorization" racism promotes and act against such "ridiculous" behavior.

By the early forties, ER firmly believed civil rights to be the real litmus test for American democracy. Thus, she declared over and over again throughout the war, there could be no democracy in the United States that did not include democracy for blacks. In The Moral Basis of Democracy she asserted that people of all races have inviolate rights to "some property." Repeatedly ER insisted that education, housing, and employment were basic human rights which society had both a moral and political obligation to provide its citizens. The government must not only provide protection against discrimination, but develop policies which create a level economic playing field. In making clear exactly what she meant, ER explained: "This means achieving an economic level below which no one is permitted to fall, and keeping a fairly stable balance between that level and the standard of living."

When white America refused to see how segregation mocked American values, ER addressed this issue sternly and directly: "We have never been willing to face this problem, to line it up with the basic, underlying beliefs in Democracy." Racial prejudice enslaved blacks; consequently, "no one can claim that . . . the Negroes of this country are free." She continued this theme in a 1942 article in the New Republic, declaring that both the private and the public sector must acknowledge that "one of the main destroyers of freedom is our attitude toward the colored race." "What Kipling called `The White Man's Burden'," she proclaimed in The American Magazine, is "one of the things we can not have any longer." Furthermore, she told those listening to the radio broadcast of the 1945 National Democratic Forum, "democracy may grow or fade as we face [this] problem."

This outspokenness exacerbated the tensions within the wartime White House. ER had championed the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), investigated claims of harsh treatment and blatant discrimination in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps barracks in Des Moines and in the training program for the Tuskeegee Airmen, and used her column as a tutorial on American race relations. Her behind the scenes efforts to push FDR to defend the integration of Detroit's Sojourner Truth housing development for defense workers angered Early and other key aides. When Detroit erupted in flames after the families moved in, many in the White House blamed ER for the riot, agreeing with the southern press that "it is blood on your hands, Mrs. Roosevelt." FDR then reversed himself and allowed his wife to visit the troops because, as Henry Wallace later recalled, "the Negro situation is too hot." While touring the Pacific, ER refused to be cowed by the Detroit backlash and was photographed visiting wounded black soldiers. She returned home and helped open an integrated CIO canteen. Criticism of her activities increased, with The Alabama Sun devoting an entire issue to "Eleanor and Some Niggers."

FDR's death freed ER from the constraints the White House wanted to impose on her activities. She joined the NAACP Board of Directors in May 1945 and the Congress on Racial Equality Board in the fall. When a white induced race riot nearly destroyed Columbia, Tennessee in October, she responded to White and Bethune's request to chair the investigative committee and worked with Thurgood Marshall to force the Justice Department to look beyond the scenario painted by town officials. The NAACP then appointed her to its legal affairs committee. She pressured the Truman administration to recommend a permanent FEPC, to lobby against the poll tax, and to propose low income federally financed housing. She urged the president to address the 1948 NAACP annual convention and joined him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he became the first president to address the organization's national convention. Although Truman had appointed her to the American delegation to the United Nations (as a way to shore up black support for his administration), their early relationship was rocky. Truman's speech and his decision to integrate the military encouraged her to reassess his leadership and played a strong role in her endorsement.

ER used "My Day," her monthly question and answer column "If You Ask Me," and her lecture tours as a tutorial on race relations. Indeed, she devoted as many columns to civil rights issues as she did to the creation and positions of the United Nations. In many of these arenas ER assumed the responsibility of explaining the NAACP legal strategy in terms which the majority of her readers could understand. Restrictive housing covenants, segregated schools, employment discrimination, literacy tests, and voting procedures were critiqued with increasing impatience. She often responded with single spaced typed letters to those who wrote questioning the legality of her stances and urging patience. In the throes of Cold War politics, she argued against red-baiting civil rights organizations and declared that the best defense against communism was making democracy work.

The Brown decision thrilled her, but she knew that integrating the schools would not be a swift or temperate exercise. The Montgomery Bus Boycott reinforced her fears and her determination. She worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to raise money for the boycott and introduced Autherine Lucy, who had tried to integrate the University of Alabama, to a Madison Square Garden fund-raiser. She, despite the caution of some of her advisors, supported the Southern Conference Education Fund's efforts to desegregate hospitals and protect voting rights. Knowing that her credibility with the civil rights community was beyond reproach and worried that Brown might divide the 1956 convention, Democratic National Committee chair Paul Butler asked her to chair the platform hearings on civil rights. She agreed, and after moderating a heated debate between those opposed to the decision and civil rights activists drafted a plank which condemned the use of force and declared the Supreme Court the nation's legal arbiter. Although the plank did not mention Brown by name, it only passed the committee by one vote. ER then mentioned the decision in every speech she gave for Adlai Stevenson, endorsed the Powell Amendment to bar federal funds from construction of segregated schools, and chided those Americans who did not see the inherent hypocrisy of critiquing communism and supporting Jim Crow.

By 1957, ER had become impatient with the Democratic Party's commitment to civil rights and began to identify more strongly with activists who wanted to change the system rather than with political officials. "Some of my best friends are Negro," she wrote in a cover story of Ebony Magazine. The struggle to integrate Little Rock's Central High School enraged her so that she questioned Eisenhower's courage, declaring that he was absent without leave from the major domestic crisis of his presidency. She phoned Daisy Bates to offer encouragement and then wrote the forward to the NAACP activist's account of the crisis, In The Shadow of Little Rock.

As Congress began to debate the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, ER used her column to critique those Democrats who tried to evade the issue and bitterly condemned the decision to include the jury trial amendment, which placed voting rights obstructionists in front of an all white jury instead of a federal judge. She wrote to activists that she understood their frustration and struggled against despair. She opposed John Kennedy's nomination as much for his non-existent support of civil rights as she did for his silence on McCarthy. And she chaired a Highlander Folk School workshop on non-violent civil disobedience for civil rights activists and wrote the introduction for CORE's pamphlet "Cracking the Color Line" concluding that "advocating civil rights does not constitute anarchy."

But it was the violent treatment the Freedom Riders received that provoked ER's harshest comments. Asked by CORE and the NAACP to chair a hearing investigating the conduct of the federal judges before whom the assailants were tried, ER lost her temper with those administration supporters who urged that the committee go into executive session to hear testimony, brusquely responding that she did not come to the hearing to equivocate. She told readers of Tomorrow is Now that this sickened her, compared it to the conduct the Nazis pursued, and wondered if the nation had learned anything from its war against Aryanism. For the United States to reclaim its true position as moral leader of the world, it must have "a social revolution." It could not be a nation with signs reading whites only. It must be done with "practical application of democratic principles."

By 1962, ER was dying and the slow progress to a race-blind society depressed her immensely. While praising the courage of King and other civil rights advocates, her columns and interviews became more pessimistic. She criticized the president for showing more profile than courage on civil rights issues. Yet she struggled to trust "the future of essential democracy." It was a disheartening and delicate balance. When she learned of the violence greeting James Meredith when he tried to enrol at the University of Mississippi and attacks on Birmingham churches, she phoned Martin Luther King to ask him to appear on her television show to discuss racial violence. He agreed, but the show was never taped. Two days later, ER entered the hospital.

When she died November 7th, King summarized her commitment to racial justice. "The impact of her personality and its unwavering devotion to high principle and purpose cannot be contained in a single day or era." Three months later, Tomorrow is Now was published and ER issued her own call for civil rights activism. "Staying aloof is not a solution, but a cowardly evasion."

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