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Thu, 10.11.1894

Eleanor Roosevelt, Political Emissary, and Writer born

Eleanor Roosevelt

*Eleanor Roosevelt was born on this date in 1884. She was a white-American diplomat, First Lady, writer, humanitarian, and activist.

Born in New York City, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 16th president. She was a shy child and experienced tremendous loss at a young age: Her mother died in 1892, and her father died two years later when she was just ten.  Roosevelt was sent to school in England as a teenager, an experience that helped draw her personality out.

In 1905, she married her distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later become president of the United States. The couple had six children: Anna, James, Franklin (who died as an infant), Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John. Despite her busy home life, Eleanor became active in public service during World War I, working for the American Red Cross.

After her husband suffered a polio attack in 1921, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped forward to help Franklin Roosevelt with his political career. When her husband became president in 1933, Eleanor dramatically changed the role of the first lady. Not content to stay in the background and handle domestic matters, she showed the world that the first lady was essential to American politics.

Regarding American Civil Rights activism, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Blacks when she toured poverty-stricken areas the summer after she became First Lady.  She did not respond to the depth of institutional racism until she pressured the Subsistence Homestead Administration to admit Blacks to Arthurdale, W VA.  Her intervention failed, and she invited NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White and the presidents of Historical Black Colleges and Universities to the White House to discuss the situation. This unprecedented meeting quickly became a tutorial on racial discrimination and lasted until midnight. She then pressured National Recovery administrator Donald Richberg to investigate the raced-based wage differentials implemented by southern industries. She asked Navy Secretary Claude Swanson why Blacks were confined to mess hall assignments. Roosevelt embraced a civil rights agenda, which confronted segregation and championed equal opportunity.  Quality education became her top public priority.  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 America.

The Black 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, pleading for some assistance. She frequently forwarded some of these letters to the White House, where she had already sent a list of suggestions on ways to include Blacks more fully within Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs. The President's aides tolerated her 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 her for advice and additional pressure. Her support frustrated FDR and enraged press Secretary Steve Early, who sent her a strong memo condemning White's single-mindedness. The tension within the White House increased when Claude Neal was lynched in October of that year.  Despite her best efforts, she could not convince FDR to support the bill publicly for fear of alienating the senior southern senators or arguing that lynching was covered under the Lindbergh kidnapping statute.

In protest, White resigned his position with the Virgin Islands Advisory Council, and she once again found herself defending him against FDR’s anger. And when White asked her to attend the NAACP-hosted art exhibit entitled "A Commentary on Lynching," she, although concerned about alienating Congress, lent her public support to this depiction of white mob violence.  Southern critics, led by Senator Eugene Tallmadge, seized the opportunity to attack FDR through her support of the NAACP and, throughout 1935, published photos of her with Blacks in The Georgia World.  She was respectfully friendly with Marian Anderson (image).

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was so offended by her actions that he became convinced she had black blood.  Other Americans did as well and wrote to ask if this was true, only to receive a reply from Mrs. Roosevelt, 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 she met in 1927 at an education conference and urged to be appointed to the National Youth Administration in 1935, also helped shape her understanding of the Black problems. She brought lists of requests for Roosevelt’s intervention when the two met and often sent reports, novels, and other reading material to her.

An extremely close relationship developed between the two women. Her 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. Roosevelt later credited her deep affection for Bethune with helping her move beyond her racial awkwardness and often called Bethune her "closest friend in her age group."

Young, outspoken Blacks also shaped her perspectives. Richard Wright's collection of short stories depicting mob violence, Uncle Tom's Children, so moved her that she agreed to help publicize the book and 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, she praised their courage and sent them money to continue their public education programs. Roosevelt also developed a lifelong friendship with Pauli Murray, whose outspoken critical letters to FDR first drew her 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, organize the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, and defend sharecropper Odell Waller against charges of premeditated murder. Although their struggle to save Waller from execution failed, Murray and Roosevelt continued their close collaboration. Murray's report to Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women capped a thirty-year association.

Ironically, the event for which Roosevelt may have received the most press was the issue upon which she took the least public action. She had invited the contralto, Marian Anderson, to perform at the White House in 1936 and had lavishly praised her talents in her column "My Day." In late 1938, she had invited the diva to perform for the forthcoming visit by the British monarchs.  She 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, she initially refused to get involved, writing Walter White that the DAR thought her much too liberal anyway she would have minimal influence on the organization.

Yet a month after White's request, Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and used her February 27, 1939 "My Day" column as a forum for the announcement. Even though she refrained from naming the organization or the issue, the column made the front pages of more than four hundred newspapers. Roosevelt's resignation from the DAR put the organization on the defensive and transformed the incident from a local slight to one of national importance. While folklore credits her with recommending the Lincoln Memorial for the site of the Easter concert, her documented contributions have a more significant impact. She pressured radio stations that 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, Roosevelt attacked the hypocritical way 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, Roosevelt believed civil rights to be the real litmus test for American democracy. Thus, she declared over and over again throughout the war that 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 she insisted that education, housing, and employment were fundamental human rights that society had a moral and political obligation to provide for its citizens. The government must protect against discrimination and develop policies that create a level of the economic playing field. She explained exactly what she meant: "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."

As white America refused to see how segregation mocked American values, she addressed this issue: "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 this.” This outspokenness exacerbated the tensions within the wartime White House. She 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 Tuskegee 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. In 1943, when Detroit erupted in flames after the families moved in, many in the White House blamed her for the riot, agreeing with the Southern press, "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, she 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." Another article in the New Republic said, "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." The photo below Roosevelt is of her and Cecil Peterson, part of her early involvement with the Tuskegee Airmen.

FDR's death freed her 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 of 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.  She 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, lobby against the poll tax, and propose low-income federally financed housing. She urged the president to address the 1948 NAACP annual convention.  She joined him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he became the first president to address the organization's national convention.

Truman's speech and decision to integrate the military encouraged her to reassess his leadership and played a strong role in her endorsement. Roosevelt used "My Day," her monthly question and answer column "If You Ask Me," and her lecture tours as a tutorial on race relations. 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 areas, she explained the NAACP's legal strategy in terms most 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 v. B.O.E. decision thrilled her, but she knew 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. She introduced Autherine Lucy, who had tried to integrate the University of Alabama into a Madison Square Garden fund-raiser. Despite the caution of some of her advisors, she 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, civil rights activists drafted a plank that 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. Roosevelt then mentioned the decision in every speech she gave for Adlai Stevenson, endorsed the Powell Amendment to bar federal funds from the construction of segregated schools, and chided those Americans who did not see the inherent hypocrisy of critiquing communism and supporting Jim Crow Laws.

By 1957, she had become impatient with the Democratic Party's commitment to civil rights.  She began to identify more strongly with activists who wanted to change the system rather than 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 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, Roosevelt 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 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.  She wrote the introduction for CORE, "Cracking the Color Line," concluding that "advocating civil rights does not constitute anarchy." But the violent treatment the Freedom Riders received provoked Roosevelt'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, Roosevelt lost her temper with those administration supporters who urged that the committee goes 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 proper position as the world's moral leader, it must have "a social revolution." It could not be a nation with signs reading whites only. It must be done with the "practical application of democratic principles."

Outside of her political work, Roosevelt wrote several books about her life and experiences, including This, Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), On My Own (1958), and Autobiography (1961). She gave press conferences and spoke for civil rights, children's causes, and women's issues, working on behalf of the League of Women Voters. She even had her newspaper column, "My Day." She also focused on helping the country's poor, stood against racial discrimination, and traveled abroad during World War II to visit U.S. troops. In 1961, she returned to public service when President John F. Kennedy made her a delegate to the United Nations. President Kennedy also appointed her chair of the Commission on the Status of Women. Some heavily criticized her for her active role in public policy, and others praised her; however, she is regarded as a leader in women's and civil rights, as well as one of the first public officials to publicize essential issues through the mass media.

By 1962, Roosevelt 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 enroll at the University of Mississippi and the attacks on Birmingham churches, she phoned Martin Luther King Jr. to ask him to appear on her television show to discuss racial violence.

He agreed, but the show was never taped. Two days later, she entered the hospital. When Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7th, 1962, at age 78, 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 she issued her own call for civil rights activism. "Staying aloof is not a solution but a cowardly evasion."

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