In First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights leaders found a committed, courageous ally.
From early adulthood Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated herself to liberty, justice, and compassion
for all. Born into
wealth and position, she could easily have turned a blind eye to those less privileged. But her
efforts on behalf of socially disadvantaged groups best exemplify the independence, initiative,
and zeal for which she is known.
Racial injustice came to her attention only after she reached the White House. By that time, she
was already active in promoting other groups' causes.
Before she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1905, she worked with the immigrants at the Rivington Street
Settlement House. During World War I she helped improve conditions for US servicemen.
When Franklin fell ill, leaving him crippled, she once again found herself standing up for someone
whose value to society was doubted, this time her own husband. The 1921 experience deepened her concern
for society's unaccepted. Later the same decade
she began her work promoting women's causes. Women had just gained the right to vote, and Eleanor
encouraged them to make the most of that right and run for office.
Her first year in the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt traveled 40,000 miles, largely
observing the Great Depression's devastation. She supported the Arthurdale
homestead project and urged the Subsistence Homestead Administration to allow African Americans
to participated. When she lost that battle, she met with Walter White, Executive Secratary of the
NAACP and several other black leaders. They opened her eyes to institutional racism that went way
beyond the Arthurdale project.
Over the next several years she lobbied for one civil rights initiative after another. She
both lobbied government bodies and took her message to the general public through regular
columns and radio broadcasts. She fought hard for legislation against lynching and lent
her presence and support to the NAACP's art exhibit on the problem. She challenged the
segregation ordninance when at a convention in Birmingham in 1938. And when the Daughters
of the American Revolution barred black opera singer Marian Andersen from performing at
Constitution Hall, she withdrew her membership and told the nation why in one of her
As America waged war on Hitler's racist regime, Mrs. Roosevelt repeatedly compared his racism
to America's. She insisted in the Moral Basis of Democracy that democracy that did not
guarantee the rights of the minority is a sham. Through the rest of the World War II and into the
beginning of the Cold War, she continued the theme that the test of democracy in America is
its treatment of blacks. To her, the fight against Aryanism which the President waged in Europe,
the fights against Communism which she fought in the fledgling United Nations, and the fight for
racial equality under the law were all manifestations of one fight. Each was a fight for freedom.
Though her own proposals included some socialist ideas, she recognized a basic problem with
both Nazism and Communism was that they left the subjects less than free citizens. And so did
It was a powerful argument rooted in America's perception of itself and propelled by
its current crises. Her argument made enemies, but it swayed opinion.
Perhaps her biggest triumphs in the struggle for racial justice were in the military.
Early in her time as First Lady, Eleanor challenged the Navy's restrictions on African
Americans to mess hall duty. She was one of several advocates for the Tuskegee Airmen's
training and service as active fighter pilots. Their success, along with that of several
other all-black units in World War II proved once again to the military and the nation
that blacks were just as capable as their white counterparts. And when in 1948 President Truman
ended segregation in the military, making it the first major institution to integrate,
his decision was due in part to Eleanor's leadership within the Democratic Party. She
applied political pressure allying herself with Generals James H. Doolittle and Follett
Bradley who argued that integration was best for the military.
After leaving the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt found herself more free than ever to promote
equal rights for African Americans. During her final years she continued fighting as hard
and fearlessly as ever. On at least one occassion, the Secret Service warned her not to
keep a speaking engagement on civil disobedience. The Ku Klux Klan had put a price on her
head and the Secret Service said they could not guarantee her safety. Undeterred, she traveled
with another lady and her revolver. Such was her determination, independence, and courage
right up to the year she died.
Mrs. Roosevelt was not always successful, even despairing at times of making any progress at all.
And not every one of the causes she championed, such as the United Nations, turned out to be all
that she hoped. But she used every ounce of her influence, charisma, and political capital for
the causes in which she believed. Right or wrong, she fought zealously and courageously, and in most
cases the world is a better place because of those fights. This zealous First Lady's support
moved African Americans' cause ahead by decades.
For more information on Eleanor Roosevelt online see:
Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil RightsHer Own Bodyguard
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