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Eleanor Roosevelt

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 columns.

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 institutional racism.

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 Rights
  • Her Own Bodyguard

    No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

    Eleanor Roosevelt: Fighter for Social Justice

    My Day: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns

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