Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
-Eleanor Roosevelt, This Is My Story, 1936
"I regret exceedingly that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist." With these words, Eleanor Roosevelt ignited a flame of controversy by resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). They, the management for the owners of Constitution hall had barred the world-renowned singer, Marian Anderson. Public shock and outrage were so great that Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes formally invited Marian Anderson to appear in the open, singing from the Lincoln Memorial. Eleanor's resignation was a wonderful act of conscience, and she was able to put both the artist and the issue of racial discrimination in the national spotlight. Eleanor's act remains a touchstone for all those who have struggled to gain racial equality in the United States. Following this well-publicized controversy, the federal government invited Anderson to sing at a public recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, some 75,000 people came to hear the free recital.
Mrs. Roosevelt also pushed extremely hard to desegregate the armed forces during World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt's stand on civil rights, her insistence that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home, remains one of the affirming moments in the history of the home front during the war.6 Not only was Eleanor willing to stand by her belief of equality, she was willing to fight for it, too. She made Franklin meet with Negro leaders to discuss discrimination and segregation and how to end the injustices in the army and navy. Eleanor was responsible for the issuance of two directives that forbade segregation in all War Department-owned lands.
Also, during the hardest times our nation has faced, Eleanor tried to ensure that Americans of all races benefited from the New Deal programs during the Great Depression (http://www.gale.com/gale/cwh/rooseve.html). She believed that "poverty should be everyone's concern, and that every person is entitled to education, health care, and a chance to realize his or her potential." (Whitney 61) When she first began examining New Deal programs, she realized that relief programs in the south were not distributing jobs and aid to blacks fairly. She then tirelessly crusaded to change this, and eventually convinced President Roosevelt to "sign an executive order barring discrimination in the administration of WPA projects."7
One of the most charming anecdotes about Mrs. Roosevelt desire for fairness and equality occurred in 1938, when she was attending a meeting for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. A segregation ordinance required that she sit in the white section of the auditorium, away from her black friends. To remedy this and to make a statement about her feelings on segregation in general, Eleanor placed her chair in the center aisle between the two sections.
The First Lady also took up the fight against lynching. When her husband hesitated about meeting with black leader Walter White of the NAACP about the sponsorship of an anti-lynching bill in 1934, Eleanor intervened to arrange the meeting. Although Roosevelt refused to support the anti-lynching bill for fear of alienating the southern wing of the Democratic Party, Eleanor continued to mediate between him and Walter White. Many African-Americans considered Eleanor their friend in the White House when it seemed as if no one else in power would make racial equality a priority. Certainly, the culmination of Mrs. Roosevelts efforts on behalf of blacks contributed to the advancement of black people in the United States, and Eleanor's open mind resulted in the opening the mind of the masses.
Home | During | After