Championing Civil Rights

excerpted from the book

Casting Her Own Shadow

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism

by Allida M. Black

Columbia University Press, 1996


From the earliest days of the New Deal through the tumultuous events of the Freedom Rides and Freedom Schools of the early 1960s, civil rights advocates, demonstrators, and lobbyists constantly solicited her support for their respective agendas. In fact, ER's commitment to racial justice was both so public and so routine that her name became synonymous with early demands for civil rights.

Yet Eleanor Roosevelt was not always a champion of civil rights. For most of her life, she counseled moderation to those activists who attacked the system instead of the mentality behind it. However, once aroused to the racial abuses blacks suffered at the hands of American democracy, ER increasingly confronted this undemocratic behavior and called it by its rightful name. As she continued to grow as an individual, her insight into this "American dilemma" increased. No other noted white American of her stature spoke out so consistently, so eloquently, and so brazenly on this issue or encountered such vicious public ridicule for this stand than Eleanor J Roosevelt. Consequently, by the time of her death in late I962, Martin Luther King, Jr., could write, "The courage she displayed in taking sides of matters considered controversial, gave strength to those who risked only pedestrian loyalty and commitment to the great issues of our times."

ER did not always agree with civil rights activists or endorse their tactics. However, throughout the thirties, forties, fifties, and early sixties black activists trusted her commitment to racial equality, her financial support to civil rights organizations, and her outspoken and honest responses to their questions and tactics. Whether campaigning against the poll tax; helping to found the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW); championing integrated housing; serving on the NAACP national board of directors; chairing the National Committee for Justice in Columbia Tennessee; endorsing the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), facilitating Democratic party platform disputes; lobbying for federal civil rights statutes; supporting the black students of Little Rock's Central High School; or decrying the violence Freedom Riders encountered in Alabama and Mississippi, ER steadily acted out her convictions and challenged others to do the same.

To reach this position, Eleanor Roosevelt took a course fraught with limitations, personal struggles, and political constraints. Yet once she reached a decision, she acted despite the consequences. Sometimes a public injustice prompted a response. At other times, appeals from unknown individuals spurred her into action behind the scenes. At still other times, she responded to a request from black leaders to investigate a specific situation or intervene on behalf of an individual unjustly treated. Consequently some historians view ER's civil rights legacy as a melange of highly emotional, uncoordinated responses to public injustice rather than as an integral part of a multifaceted approach to political action.

Such cursory assessment misses the point. ER's overt commitment to racial justice bespoke not a sporadic response of conscience but an unwavering allegiance to democratic principles. She believed wholeheartedly that a democracy must be inclusive and protect minority rights and insure safe, peaceful protest or it ceased to be democratic. Moreover, as she aged, she came to see democracy in broader terms. Consequently, she could learn to transcend to a remarkable degree most of the limits of her old progressive heritage, ultimately placing less emphasis on working patiently within the system and more on forcing the system to be accountable. Repeatedly she urged minorities, especially black Americans, to be "dynamic" in their drive for freedom. Passive acceptance of unjust social norms was amoral. "Staying aloof is not a solution," she declared in Tomorrow Is Now. "[I]t is a cowardly evasion."

ER's consistent response in the face of constant extraordinary criticism indicates the depth of her commitment. Of all the controversial people and policies Eleanor Roosevelt promoted throughout her life, none generated a response equal to that provoked by her support of civil rights policies at home and abroad. In fact, she was so closely associated with the movement for racial justice that the almost 4,000-page dossier the FBI kept on her is filled with references to her civil rights activities and the outrage it generated among her detractors. Rumors spread throughout the thirties and forties reflected this connection. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, even speculated that "Negro blood" inspired ER's perverse behavior. Other Americans suspected this as well. "I don't mean to be rude," a woman wrote to ER as part of her monthly "If You Ask Me" column, "but do you have colored blood in your family, as you seem to derive so much pleasure from associating with colored folks?"

Nor were the insinuations limited to ER's racial heritage. Just as frequently she was accused of aggressively inciting blacks to challenge southern customs. Rumors that she actively encouraged southern black domestics to form Eleanor Clubs to counteract their exploitative working conditions were so widespread that the news media treated them as fact. When this rumor refused to subside, ER ultimately asked the FBI if any such associations existed. Despite bureau affidavits denying the existence of the clubs, many Americans continued to believe in them and refused to view her civil rights actions more dispassionately.

All this suspicion failed to moderate ER's positions. On the contrary, her unwavering resolution underscored the depth of her commitment to economic and political equality for black Americans. As she wrote Missouri Governor Lloyd C. Stark, when he complained about the "severe" treatment he had received for his inclusive sharecropper policies, "I am sorry you are being attacked, but the negro sharecroppers have such a big stake in this problem that they have to be included. All of us have to take this kind of criticism." Moreover, she held private citizens to the same standards she set for public leaders. When Evans C. Johnson, of Langdale, Alabama, wrote her criticizing "her extremism on the race question" and declaring that "the extremity of her position was embarrassing to Southern liberals," he received a "paragraph by paragraph answer [that] pretty well cut me down to size."

"I am not letting my ideals . . . blind me to the facts," her two-paged, single-spaced response began, but "I am afraid that many people are letting their prejudice blind them to the real facts." Americans must face "certain fundamentals" if the nation is to continue as a world power. The nation must recognize that the "unrest among the colored people is part of the world revolution of all colored peoples against the domination of white people." Southern blacks, especially "those who have had an opportunity to obtain an education, know that they have never been given their rights as citizens of the United States." Moreover, they "are drafted into the Army and expected to fight for a country which denies them the rights guaranteed to every citizen in our Constitution." This is democracy in its most shameful form.

Furthermore, Johnson's fear that democracy would promote racial violence could not have been further from the truth. Riots will happen "unless we refuse to grant four fundamental rights: the right to an education according to ability; the right to earn a living according to ability; the right to equal justice before the law and the right to participate in Government through the ballot." As for his claim that she was too far ahead of southern liberals, ER tersely replied that the liberals should realize how condescending their benevolent stand was. "No one, certainly not I, is trying to reform any one either over night or in any way." And while she knew that "the majority of white people in the South have been kind and benevolent to the colored people," these whites also need to recognize that chivalry was no substitute for equality. Blacks were "human beings brought to this country against their will, and as such, entitled to the same rights as we accord aliens who become citizens."


"No one can claim that the Negroes of this country are free."
Black Americans and the Home Front

ER's convictions led Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to place her among the first Americans he wanted to interview for his study of American race relations, An American Dilemma. The responses she gave to Ralph Bunche, the political scientist assisting Myrdal, clearly indicate that by the outbreak of World War II, ER still believed that solving the nation's economic troubles was essential to easing its racial tensions. If America could defeat the Depression and Hitler, racism would no longer be as pervasive or as vicious. Class, she told Bunche, was a dangerous distinction because it gave Americans an avenue through which to accentuate racial differences. When people no longer competed for scarce resources and the government assumed its responsibility to assure a basic quality of life for its citizens, ER in true progressive fashion, initially assumed that such a calm environment would promote tranquil race relations.

Throughout the I9405 ER emphasized economic opportunity as a key component of racial justice. Yet she also recognized that personal beliefs increasingly played an important role in directing American racism and argued that American hypocrisy must be confronted boldly. The country was extremely "guilty of 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." Americans, she informed Bunche, wanted to talk "only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet." Such denial only fueled violent response; Americans must therefore recognize "the real intensity of feeling" and "the amount of intimidation and terrorization" racism promotes and act against such "ridiculous" behavior. This conviction led Ralph Bunche to report to Gunnar Myrdal, "I do not believe I have interviewed anyone about whose sincerity I am more impressed."

As World War II approached Eleanor Roosevelt firmly believed the civil rights issue 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." "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 I942 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."

ER also realized that such continuous demands for democratic conduct did little to ease the pain black Americans encountered on a daily basis and she tried very hard to understand the depths of their anger. "If I were a Negro today, I think I would have moments of great bitterness," she confessed to readers of Negro Digest. "It would be hard for me to sustain my faith in democracy and to build up a sense of goodwill toward men of other races." She certainly could appreciate black rage because she knew that if she were black, her anger would surface. Nevertheless, she hoped she could channel her fury constructively because "there now remains much work to be done to see that freedom becomes a fact and not just a promise for my people."

However, just as blacks should be wary of promises, ER cautioned all Americans to be suspicious of those who preach tolerance. She believed that "we must . . . take the word 'tolerance' out of our vocabulary and substitute for it the precept live and let live, cooperate in work and play and like our neighbors." "The problem is not to learn tolerance of your neighbors," she lectured to those who promoted such complacency, "but to see that all alike have hope and opportunity and that the community as a whole moves forward." Moreover, America cannot neglect its conscience where race is concerned because to do so would be denying its heritage, tainting its future, and succumbing to the law of the jungle.

Despite the mild language she used in discussing black frustration, when during World War II Eleanor Roosevelt dared to equate American racism with fascism and argued that to ignore the evils of segregation would be capitulating to Aryanism, hostility toward her reached an all-time high. Newspapers from Chicago to Louisiana covered the dispute and numerous citizens pleaded with J. Edgar Hoover to silence her. Typical of such outrage is the argument presented by one irate American who accused ER of "deliberately aiding and abetting the enemy abroad by fermenting racial troubles at home."

Trying to turn the allegations of fascist behavior back onto the first lady, the author labeled the Negro Digest a publication dedicated to promoting communist-inspired racial propaganda and proclaimed ER guilty by association. The vast majority of the "loyal American population . . . are not afraid to express . . . their honest opinion that the wife of our nation's President and Commander-in-Chief heads the list [of enemies]." Although she professes "to speak as a private citizen," if any other private citizen expressed such opinions "all loyal Americans would name her a traitor." Moreover, ER's statements on behalf of black Americans "are calculated to arouse distrust and suspicion between the white and negro race here in the United States." Outraged that "white citizens of the United States have sacrificed their careers" to advance the stature of blacks, he predicted that if ER were not silenced veterans would come home "only to return to find the Roosevelts and the negroes in complete charge of our so-called 'democracy' they fought to save." Furthermore, she not only damaged American morale but also encouraged the Axis powers to think the nation weak. "Can you wonder that the Germans and Reds are laughing up their sleeves at us?," he concluded.

Even those Americans professing to support economic equality for blacks objected to ER's positions. For example, Frank McAllister, a socialist who sat on the SCHW board with her, was so jealous of ER's influence within the Conference that he spread rumors that she was having an affair with Paul Robeson (and therefore was nothing more than a closet communist) as part of his efforts to undermine her stature.

Nothing could have prepared the administration, however, for the venomous attacks ER received throughout I943 after she continued to argue that black defense workers should be allowed to occupy federally constructed housing units in Detroit. ER argued unsuccessfully within the administration that the critical housing shortage could be used as a cover for slum clearance, that the housing constructed should last longer than the war, and that proper planning could produce integrated neighborhoods. Opposed by Charles Palmer, who coordinated the federal housing program, ER watched as Congress stripped slum clearance from its housing appropriations bill. Then she encouraged Clark Foreman's plan to divert some funds to the Sojourner Truth Project in Detroit. Outraged that their neighborhood could be integrated against their will, Polish neighbors of Sojourner Truth appealed to their congressman to stop the plan. Representative Rudolph Tenerowicz labeled the black tenants communist pawns and then had a rider attached to the appropriations bill declaring that "no money would be released unless that 'nigger lover' [Foreman] was fired and the project returned to white occupancy." The Federal Works Agency capitulated, forced Foreman out, and stopped recruiting black tenants.

ER then appealed to the president on behalf of the civil rights leaders who requested her intercession. Arguing that the black tenants had support from a variety of leading white politicians, such as Mayor Edward Jeffries, Walter Reuther, and other UAW officials, she convinced FDR to reverse the white-only policy. By the end of February I942, two dozen black families, accompanied by 300 black supporters, prepared to move into the project only to be met by cross burnings and a crowd of 700 armed white resisters. The families turned back, the police arrested I04 rioters and, after a series of compromises failed, the city delayed occupancy for more than a year.

In April I943, the City, supported by 800 state police, moved the black families into their new homes. Within two months, tensions boiled over as fights broke out between the blacks and whites seeking refuge from the summer heat at Belle Isle, an amusement park located on an island in the Detroit River. As rumors flooded the housing districts adjacent to Sojourner Truth, sporadic outbreaks of violence coalesced into a sustained, brutal riot on June 2I. Twenty-five blacks and nine whites died. ER had just returned to Washington from Chicago the week before where she had met with an overflowing, predominantly black, crowd distraught over the race riot which had closed the Addsco shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, three weeks earlier. She used her speech as a plea for racial cooperation. When White House aides told her of the Detroit uprising, she mourned the deaths but was not surprised. As she later wrote Trude Lash, "Detroit never should have happened but when Congress behaves as it does why should others be calmer?"

The country was stunned and many held ER responsible. One Detroit resident told the FBI the first lady has "done more to agitate the whites and over-encourage the negroes . . . than any other single group outside of the Communists in the United States." Another wrote FDR that ER and the mayor had encouraged the outbreak by "their coddling of the negroes." The southern press abandoned all decorum. "It is blood on your hands, Mrs Roosevelt," the Jackson Daily News pronounced the day after the riot. "You have been personally proclaiming and practicing social equality at the White House.... What followed is now history." By August, the White House, concerned that her positions were too damaging to the president, began its own counteroffensive. As Henry Wallace and Gardner Jackson later recalled, "Mrs. R . . . was ordered to go" to New Zealand "because the Negro situation was too hot." Although she had long wanted to visit the troops, ER understood why the administration suddenly honored her request. "I suppose when one is being forced to realize that an unwelcome change is coming, one must blame it on someone or something''

Although her tour of the South Pacific got ER out of the country, it did nothing to deter her commitment to racial justice at home. Haunted by her visits with soldiers on bases, in hospitals, and in battle zones, she obsessed over how to honor their sacrifices. More and more she referred to the prayer she had carried with her. "Dear Lord, Lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember, somewhere out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer am I worth dying for?" As she confessed to a friend, her visit with the troops filled her with "a sense of obligation which I can never discharge."

Thus, she accepted the CIO's invitation to host the opening of their integrated canteen in Washington in February I944. When the wire services carried photographs of a smiling ER serving refreshments to a crowd of black soldiers and white hostesses, the furor over her racial policies resurfaced. Typical of this reaction is the caption The Greensboro Watchman placed under the photo: "This is Mrs. Roosevelt at the CIO canteen party in Washington as she served negroes along with whites, and joined in singing love songs as negro men danced with white girls." Letters poured into the White House objecting to her participation and newspapers from Tampa to Houston to Memphis editorialized against her conduct.

With such criticism escalating as the war drew to a close, ER's warnings about the future increased. Worried that an uncertain postwar economy would exacerbate white racism and that a refusal to recognize the contributions of black veterans would encourage black distrust of whites, she repeatedly challenged America to recognize that racial injustice was the biggest threat to American democracy. The United States must "stop generalizing about people" and recognize stereotypes as racist propaganda. "If we really believe in Democracy," Eleanor Roosevelt said to black and white audiences throughout I945, "we must face the fact that equality of opportunity is basic" and that grievances expressed by black Americans were "legitimate." "We have expected [the Negroes] to be good citizens and . . . we haven't given them an opportunity to take part in our government." Refusing to concede to her opponents, she asserted that if the nation continued to honor Jim Crow, America would have defeated fascism abroad only to defend racism at home.

Eleanor Roosevelt said the same things in private that she did in public. She pressed to keep civil rights issues on the top of the domestic political agenda, whether interceding with the president for Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph, or W. E. B. DuBois; raising money for Howard University or Bethune-Cookman College; investigating discrimination black women encountered while stationed at the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps base in Des Moines, Iowa; pressing the FEPC to investigate complaints; or supporting anti-segregation campaigns and anti-lynching legislation. This was not a popular position to take and led FDR's aide Jonathan Daniels to admit that while she "did a lot of good," she really was a "hair shirt" to the administration who was always complicating policy by "bringing a hell of a lot of cats and dogs" into the discussion. Consequently, throughout the war years, her standing with civil rights leaders increased while her standing with some key White House aides decreased.

Nor did she limit her energy to confronting national problems. Frequently an individual who had been unjustly treated prompted effort equal to that she expended on a more widespread problem. Throughout the New Deal and war years, ER acted as both a spokesperson and lobbyist for tenant farmers and black sharecroppers. Whether working within the administration with Will Alexander on Farm Security issues or Harry Hopkins or Aubrey Williams on WPA, NYA, and Subsistence Homestead projects, Eleanor Roosevelt strove to force the administration to recognize that Jim Crow and the Depression often combined to give a knockout punch to southern black farmers. Outside the White House, ER tried to mobilize support for sharecroppers by discussing their problems in her speeches, columns, and articles; actively supporting the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union; meeting with small groups of individual sharecroppers to discuss their plight and review their suggestions for reform; and sponsoring National Sharecroppers Week.

When Randolph, Bethune, and Pauli Murray, a young black woman with whom ER developed a friendship grounded in "confrontation by typewriter," informed her that sharecropper Odell Waller had been sentenced to death by a jury from which blacks had deliberately been excluded, Eleanor Roosevelt's efforts reached new heights. She launched a one-woman campaign within the White House to commute Waller's sentence. She wrote and telephoned Virginia Governor Clement Darden to plead Waller's case, and forced FDR to follow-up on her request with his own call to Darden. At the same time, she met with Waller's supporters, discussed his plight in her column, contributed to his defense fund, and advised his defense committee. When readers challenged her stance, she minced no words in her reply. "Times without number Negro men have been Iynched or gone to their death without due process of law. No one questions Waller's guilt, but they question the system which led to it."

After all other efforts on Waller's behalf failed, ER still refused to concede defeat and on the day of his scheduled electrocution, repeatedly interrupted FDR's war planning meeting with Harry Hopkins until the president took her call and refused her plea for further intervention. Two hours before the sharecropper was to die in the electric chair, a dejected ER phoned A. Philip Randolph at NAACP headquarters. As Waller's supporters listened to her over five extensions, in a trembling voice she told Randolph: "I have done everything I can possibly do. I have interrupted the President . . . I am so sorry, Mr. Randolph, I can't do any more."

Although Waller was executed, the intensity of her efforts on his behalf solidified ER's ties with civil rights leaders. Thus, despite Randolph's increasing frustration with FDR's reluctance to enforce fair employment policies, he could urge a national conference of black leaders to pursue a dual strategy of nonviolent direct action and working with Eleanor Roosevelt. The NAACP agreed. Walter White knew that when he phoned ER before the I944 Democratic Convention to warn that blacks might vote Republican if a strong civil rights plank were not adopted, she would not discount his analysis. In fact, she repeatedly tried to obtain an audience for White with either the president or DNC chair Robert Hannegan. Consequently, despite FDR's thinly disguised disregard for the association and the unwillingness he showed in responding to its requests, White encountered no opposition when he recommended that ER join the NAACP Board of Directors.

Despite the close working relationship she had with black leaders and her outspoken championing of racial equality, there was one issue Eleanor Roosevelt was reluctant to address directly: social equality. The reasons for her reluctance were more political than personal. As she confided to Walter White, she had to choose her words carefully when discussing racial discrimination with administration officials because some senior members immediately assumed that desegregation implied support for racially mixed marriages. Even Edith Wilson, the only other twentieth-century first lady subjected to intense media scrutiny, could not resist deriding ER's actions. Furthermore, throughout the I944 campaign, Republicans capitalized on this fear and spread allegations that ER "advocated intermarriage of the negro with the whites." To one columnist, her "innocent, wholehearted, humane enthusiasms" were "only a disguise" for "some scheme containing the most binding elements of Communism and Hitlerism." And The Alabama Sun devoted an entire issue to "Eleanor Demands Equality for Negroes in Address" and featured numerous photographs under the caption "Eleanor and Some More Niggers."

Eleanor Roosevelt feared that this backlash would undermine what little progress had been made to date. Therefore, when she did discuss social issues relating to civil rights, such as education and housing and employment, she tried to define clearly the parameters of the discussion. She frequently made the opposition define their terms rather than immediately assuming a defensive posture. "I do not know what you call equality," she used in rebuttal to Eufala, Alabama, Mayor M. M. Moulthrop's objections to her position. "We are fighting a war today which is going to require of us this type of respect for other races. This does not mean you have to sit at [a] table or meet in a social way anyone whom you do not wish to meet." Moreover, "no one can tell me I've got to ask someone to dinner if I don't want to," she told reporters who challenged her views. "Neither can they tell me not to ask people I want to ask."

Eleanor Roosevelt answered questions from her supporters with the same care she gave to those who opposed her views. When Pauli Murray questioned her statement that she "had never advocated social equality," she responded in a two-page, single-spaced letter that the term "does not mean at all what it seems to mean to certain people." "I think it is important," she told her young friend, "that every citizen in the United States have an equal opportunity and that is why I have emphasized the four basic things we should fight for," education, employment, housing, and voting rights. Practicing democracy is the key, not social egalitarianism. Thus, when Atlanta attorney Pearl Burnette wrote praising ER's courage, ER responded that they had different interpretations of social equality. "I take it as meaning the association of people who are friends, who want to be together and who enjoy the companionship of one another." This did not necessarily mean intermarriage; however, she continued, "I do not think this is something that we can legislate. Laws will not prevent anything so personal." Yet those who watched her closely saw through her disclaimers. She might have argued "don't push too fast," Murray recalled in her autobiography, but she always "took the next step."

In short, when ER joined the NAACP board in I945 she brought with her an increased awareness of the complex problems black Americans confronted at the end of the war. Like Myrdal, she agreed that the war would stimulate black protest in a way that would promote "a redefinition of the Negro's status in America." Like DuBois, she saw the war as "a way to take democracy off of parchment and give it life." Like White, she feared an increase in Iynchings and racial violence as black veterans returned home to compete for wages and housing. Finally, like Bethune, she feared that the Veteran's Administration would neglect the needs specific to black soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel, and blacks who had served the country would again be deprived of their rightful share of its benefits. Consequently, when Eleanor Roosevelt formalized her ties to the NAACP she shared both its projections of and its aspirations for the future.


"We must be prepared . . . to hazard all we have."
Nonviolent Resistance from SCEF to the Freedom Riders

By the late I9505, as white supremacists increasingly attacked black and white civil rights workers, ER allied more and more with those who argued that court challenges and legislative proposals were no longer the only effective way to implement reform. While she had supported orderly demonstrations protesting segregation throughout the late thirties and forties, with the notable exception of her defiance of Birmingham's segregation ordinance at the founding meeting of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare in I938, her endorsements were selective and usually couched in restrained language. By the early fifties, infuriated by the red-baiting of civil rights organizations, her reticence vanished and she became more bold in her support for dramatic demonstrations. "Like the scream of 'red,' the scream of race has become a political symbol and each man thinks he has to outscream the other to prove his purity," she angrily wrote in early I956. "Pious hopes and inaction cannot change this behavior." Change can only come by "cool heads . . . soft speech and firm action within the law."

Eleanor Roosevelt's endorsement of civil disobedience was an endorsement of nonviolent resistance, not a blanket approval of law-breaking and black nationalism. Separatism was as much of an anathema to her as segregation and she chastised those Black Muslims who preached that social division was the only avenue to equality. Just as she admired the discipline and self-sacrifice Gandhi personified in his struggle to free India from British rule, the discipline exercised by those involved in the Freedom Struggle personified to ER the continuing evolution of American democracy. ER supported nonviolent resistance because she believed that pressure applied within the confines of the law to force those who disregarded the law to obey the Constitution was both intrinsically moral and American. Thus in the early postwar years, when Bayard Rustin coordinated civil rights workshops across the nation to "help blacks understand the principles of Ghandian techniques," he asked ER to help get "whites to face their responsibility" and recognize "the need to be in alliance with blacks when they moved." She lent support to this project not only by attending the workshops but by "encouraging blacks and whites [to] divide up into teams" and by trying peacefully to integrate restaurants. Dorothy Height recalled often being part of a small group of young black women whom ER would join for a Saturday night dinner in a downtown southern white restaurant and how serene ER was in her challenge to segregation.

Although this endorsement of peaceful protest and civil disobedience did not please many of her closest associates, ER nevertheless supported civil rights organizers and activists with the intensity she had previously devoted to policy analysts and politicians. Therefore, by the end of the fifties ER believed that the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activists, and the Freedom Riders sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) were as central to the success of the civil rights agenda as the NAACP, Americans for Democratic Action, liberal politicians, and the Southern Regional Council.

ER's ties to SCEF were strong from its inception. Initially begun as a committee of SCHW, on whose board of directors ER sat, SCEF separated from SCHW in I948 and elected as its first president Aubrey Williams, the New Dealer whose social and economic politics most closely resembled ER's. Moreover, as the only biracial group in the South committed to dismantling segregation, SCEF reflected ER's long-standing commitment to integrated housing, education, and voting rights. Anxious to keep her support, Williams asked ER to sit on the SCEF board. She agreed, lent her name to SCEF organizational efforts, and rapidly began raising funds and promoting SCEF'S agenda in her columns and speeches.

ER knew that this was a risky political endorsement. SCEF'S attack on segregation and its social underpinnings quickly drew national attention and in I950 ER found herself squarely amidst the controversy surrounding sexuality and segregation. When seven black men were sentenced to death for raping a white woman, SCEF editorialized against their execution in The Southern Patriot, arguing that a "study of the death penalties in rape cases showed that execution for rape was a penalty directed against the Negro." When Virginia Governor John S. Battle refused to commute the sentences, SCEF bitterly criticized his cowardice, by comparing Battle's conduct to that of the U.S. high commissioner for Germany who had granted a stay of execution to seven Nazi officials convicted of killing eighty American prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge.

This stance and the fact that some of the defense attorneys had been members of the Communist party and the Civil Rights Congress served as a lightning rod for SCEF'S critics. Ardent supporters of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) now joined forces with the outspoken segregationists in attacking SCEF. Criticism increased in I95I when SCEF launched a well-publicized campaign to integrate southern hospitals and professional schools. Undaunted by the ferocity of the Fund's critics, ER lent her very public support to SCEF not only by hosting a fund-raiser in the midst of the public outcry over SCEF'S position but also by insuring widespread press coverage by bringing Madame Pandit, the sister of Prime Minister Nehru, and Mary McLeod Bethune to the reception as guests of honor.

In I955, the Iynching of Emmett Till and the murders of Lamar Smith and The Reverend George Lee, two black men who had resisted pressure to remove their names from the voter registration list, compelled SCEF and ER to become more assertive in their drive for civil rights laws that would give federal protection to civil rights workers. SCEF decided to circulate a petition nationwide demanding that the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights hold hearings to determine whether federal intervention was needed to protect the civil rights of black Mississippians and their white supporters and to assemble a biracial delegation that would present the petition to Subcommittee Chairman Senator William Langer. Even though ER was embroiled in the I956 primaries, she was happy that SCEF took action and did not moderate her support to the Fund. She sent letters to Langer endorsing the Fund's request for congressional inquiry and praised their plan in "My Day." And when their petition was denied, she publicly expressed disappointment in her column.

Nor did her support wane when, in spring I956, SCEF began to pressure the New Orleans School Board to hold public hearings on school desegregation. When the board agreed, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Eastland, counterstruck and released its report declaring that SCEF had, among other things, concealed the names of its communist members and was committed to dismantling American "social traditions." Inspired by the press coverage the Eastland report received and aware of Eastland's own commitment to resistance, white Citizens Councils formed in New Orleans and circulated copies of the Senate report, a reprint from Firing Line charging SCEF with treason, and a petition demanding that the school board rescind its decision allowing SCEF to hold hearings. Although the NAACP opposed SCEF'S efforts and must have cautioned ER against supporting them, after consulting with Williams and SCEF Executive Director Jim Dombrowski, ER once again endorsed their efforts and clearly stated her support for public hearings. Her concern with presidential posturings did not temper her support of local initiatives or compromise her interpretation of Brown.

ER's most crucial support for the Fund occurred in I957 when it hired Anne and Carl Braden, two Kentucky journalists who had been blacklisted for challenging Louisville's restrictive housing covenant and for possessing "subversive" literature. In I954, Andrew Wade, a friend of the Bradens who was trying to move his family "outside the ghetto," asked them to help him find a house. The Bradens then bought a home in an all white-suburb and resold it to Wade. After the Wades moved in, neighborhood hysteria quickly escalated into vigilante violence. Despite shootings, cross burnings, and numerous other assaults, the Bradens and the Wades remained in the house until Klansmen destroyed it with dynamite. A politically ambitious district attorney, emboldened by the silence of the cowed black community, argued that Carl Braden had incited the violence and arrested him for sedition against the state. A search of the Braden home produced political literature the prosecutors immediately labeled "seditious" and an all-white jury quickly convicted Braden and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. Eight months into his sentence, the Supreme Court declared in the Nelson decision that state sedition statutes were unconstitutional and Braden was released.

SCEF then hired the Bradens as field secretaries in I957 to help make the "Fund become a nerve center of inter and intra-racial communication in the South." Though leery of the damage that charges that Carl Braden was a communist might do, ER expressed pleasure with the programs the Bradens had developed to promote compliance with Brown, endorsed the sympathy boycotts they planned in the North against branches of national chains whose southern branches complied with Jim Crow policy, and, despite increased pressure from ADA and NAACP leadership, continued publicly to support SCEF until her death. Moreover, when Anne Braden's The Wall Between, a strong assault on segregation, racial customs, and the bias of the southern judicial system, appeared in spring I958, four ringing endorsements were prominently displayed on its book jacket: Aubrey Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

ER's support of SCEF placed her in stark opposition to the NAACP, the ADA, and many of her Democratic allies who argued that the Bradens' suspiciously "red" credentials damaged the cause of civil rights. Weary and fearful of FBI and HUAC allegations, moderate civil rights organizations, which concentrated on legal redress, feared that their efforts would be tainted by Carl Braden's refusal to answer questions before HUAC in the fall of I958. The NAACP began an "all out" lobbying effort to persuade ER to disavow SCEF. Although ER did resign from the SCEF board in I960, after the Fund hired William Howard Melish, an Episcopal priest with long ties to the American Labor party and the Council on Soviet-American Friendship, leading some within the Fund to argue that she had succumbed to the NAACP'S arguments, she continued to endorse and raise funds for their work while she shifted most of her active public support to CORE and SNCC.

SCEF was not the only rift that developed between Eleanor Roosevelt and the NAACP in I958. The Association refused to take cases that could be seen as assaults on social practice rather than legal custom. Its staff already had more cases than it could handle and the legal division worried that extraneous cases might derail its master plan for challenging the legality of segregation. While sympathetic, ER now disagreed; consequently, when Conrad Lynn (a black attorney who had defended the Bradens in Kentucky) asked for her support in "the kissing case," a case that the NAACP refused to take, she cooperated without hesitation.

Hanover Thompson, age nine, and Fuzzy Simpson, age seven, rode their bicycles home Halloween week and passed a group of children who asked them to stop and play. The boys eagerly joined the group and soon began to play house. Sissy Marcus then recognized Hanover as the young boy whose mother used to work for her mother and with whom she had played as a toddler. Marcus, excited to see her old playmate, kissed him on the cheek and ran home to tell her mother. Thompson sat on the curb, stomping spiders. Bernice Marcus, enraged by her daughter's delight, washed Sissy's mouth out with Iye, and called the police to report that a black youth had sexually assaulted her white daughter. The police arrived while the children were still playing.

Thompson and Simpson were charged with rape and held incommunicado for a week in an underground cell in the Union County, North Carolina, jail. No NAACP attorney would defend them, opting instead to refer the case to Lynn. After accepting the case, Lynn learned that Juvenile Judge Hampton Price had already held a "separate but equal trial," declared the boys guilty, and sentenced Simpson to twelve and Thompson to fourteen years in prison. Price had summoned Bernice and Sissy Marcus to his chambers, heard Mrs. Marcus describe the assault, and then separately summoned the boys and their mothers to hear their response. As Price later told Lynn, "since they just stood silent and didn't say nothin', I knew that was a confession of guilt." Despite Lynn's argument that this procedure violated the defendants' constitutional right to confront their accusers, Price stood firm in his ruling. Lynn's subsequent appeals failed; no North Carolina judge would overrule Price.

Lynn then telephoned Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the attorney knew from his investigation of the Till Iynching and his work on NAACP and SCEF events. When he finished relaying the case, a very angry ER wondered aloud "whether this country would ever learn" and lectured the attorney for not calling her sooner. She did not know what she could do now, other than pressure other attorneys to help. Lynn suggested that she emphasize the international repercussions such an event might have and then told her that he had arranged for a petition signed by several thousand students of the Roosevelt High School in Rotterdam to be delivered to her on Lincoln's Birthday. ER volunteered to take the petition to Eisenhower and use it as a lever to demand the boys' release. The day the petition arrived ER phoned the president and Justice Department officials, argued that the case was an ethical and international disgrace, and demanded that he "put a stop to this persecution." Eisenhower, who had known of the case prior to his conversation with ER but had refused to take action, then phoned North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges and ordered the children released and their records destroyed.

Lynn's call for aid came as ER prepared to help the NAACP and the ADA mobilize congressional support for a new civil rights bill. Southern segregationists, displaying the hyperbolic intransigence that would soon surface in Little Rock, so dominated both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees' hearings on the Civil Rights Act of I957 that they depicted Section III, the provision allowing the Justice Department to use injunctions and other legal maneuvers on behalf of individuals who alleged violation of their civil rights, as a resurrection of Reconstruction power politics in which the North would once again invade the South and demanded that any suit alleging violation of civil rights must be tried in front of a jury.

Angered by the "extremely inflammatory speech" of southern opponents, ER took the unusual step of devoting almost half of July and August "My Day" columns to the debate over the I957 bill. In clear, impassioned language, she appealed for support for Part III and for opposition to the jury trial amendment, arguing that if the two amendments were passed she could understand why "many people would feel that perhaps there had never been any real intention of passing a civil rights bill at all." She also scathingly attacked Georgia Senator Richard Russell, whom she depicted as sounding "a little like old General Toombs, who walked out of Congress on much the same note to finally fight in the Civil War."

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to strike Part III from the bill and, after southern and western Democrats joined forces, passed the jury trial amendment by a 51-42 vote. ER struggled not to succumb to sarcasm and despair. "Little as this civil rights bill seems to do," she was hopeful that Congress would pass the weakened act, writing that she "would prefer to have even the little that will come with this bill than to have nothing." Yet all restraint vanished when she warned segregationist Democrats of the consequences of their actions.

"I think the Southern Senators, led by Senator Johnson and Senator Richard Russell, have won a costly victory-because this fight for civil rights is not going to stop." The world is changing and reactionaries cannot stop it. "If the people of Africa are on the move, the people of the United States are also on the move." Furthermore, "our people are not going to be satisfied with crumbs such as this civil rights bill gives them. It will bring us no peace."

The behavior of Judge Price and the inability of Monroe Country blacks to unseat him only compounded the frustration that ER felt during the debate over the I957 legislation and underscored the urgent need for federal protection of civil rights for southern blacks. In a blatant appeal for votes as a presidential election approached, both parties in I959 introduced civil rights bills, two of which included the provisions for federal intervention deleted from the I957 act. Sectional and political rivalries prevented consensus and Congress adjourned without having taken action. An embittered, dispirited ER worried that once again animosity would triumph over principle.

She began I960 by taking her case directly to Senate leadership and attacking the critics of federal protection in her column. In late January, she wrote Lyndon Johnson to serve notice that "there are three things I think absolutely essential in any civil rights bill": Brown must be complied with immediately, the "Attorney General must have the power to move in all cases of civil rights violation," and federal registrars should be sent to districts that have denied blacks the vote. Sending a clear message that she intended to play a much more assertive role than she had in I957, she offered to change her schedule and meet with Johnson when she returned from the West Coast on February II. Appealing to his party position, she concluded "I think it is absolutely necessary that we make a Democratic record on this bill. The Negroes are going more and more to the Republicans, and those that we can count on as Democrats need a real achievement on the part of the Democrats to point to as a reason for backing the Democratic Party."

The challenge that she presented to the public, liberals, and the party through her columns was just as uncompromising. "It seems a pity that there has to be argument about the best way to assure part of our citizenry the rights that it should automatically enjoy," she wrote in mid-February. "In looking back over the many years since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation . . . how little we have to be proud of." When Clarence Mitchell informed her that Democratic whips were being outmaneuvered on roll calls because Republicans were calling for votes in the evening when the liberals had left the floor, ER scathingly reproached those Democrats who seemed to be more interested in watching the clock than passing legislation. "No liberal should be more than five minutes away from where he can be reached in case of a vote until the continuous session is over," she wrote in a "My Day" column which appeared in the midst of the filibuster.

"A liberal cannot give lip service to civil rights. He must be on hand if a vote is going to be obtained on the civil rights bill in this session."

When the Senate bowed to southern pressure and refused to approve the sections of the bill that would have given the Justice Department the power to prosecute civil rights cases, ER sarcastically criticized the Senate's cowardice. She asked readers to envision "long lines of colored people waiting to register in Alabama, Mississippi or some of the other southern states and someone walking quietly up and down in a low voice saying: 'Wait till you come out of that registration booth then we will get you." 'Would whites have that courage? Could they "brave the immediate threat and go in to register and meet what difficulties had to be met at that time," only to "get home to find that [their jobs were] gone or that some [other] threat would be made?" This legislation "will be of no practical value unless the Negro is protected by Federal authority and it is given from the first move to the last."

Clearly by 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt was losing patience with those who counseled moderation. The convention fights over civil rights, the violent intensity of the white backlash, the lack of leadership in both the Democratic party and the Republican White House, the strong egos of liberal leaders and the timidity of their responses, and the extreme reluctance of many Americans to confront their own prejudice became increasingly more difficult for her to tolerate. Furthermore, ER knew that her influence was waning and that she no longer commanded the power she once did. Yet, rather than wallow in bitter frustration, she increasingly turned to youth as well as older mainstream activists for both information and inspiration. In the course of her career, she had always maintained strong contact with students and activists. But now, in the throes of Little Rock, Louisville, Monroe, and Freedom Summer, she increasingly identified with these younger and bolder agents of social change.

Justine Wise, the daughter of ER's close friend Rabbi Samuel Wise worked in a Macomb, Mississippi, school run by civil rights activists and regularly wrote ER about her activities. The author and civil rights activist Lillian Smith also regularly sent ER information regarding racial violence in Georgia. Myles Horton and other Highlander alumnae also kept her informed of racial justice and civil disobedience training programs the school offered. But perhaps the most revealing assessment of ER's increasing support of civil disobedience was made by Joe Rauh to Joe Lash. Resentfully, Rauh complained that ER was paying more attention to Anne Braden than she was to ADA, concluding, "I suppose it's hopeless" to continue arguing against the Fund.

It became increasingly more difficult for ER to discuss civil rights without discussing racist violence and to discuss segregation without comparing it to apartheid. With each speech she gave on civil rights, her support of the freedom workers became more clear. As she was fond of telling college audiences, "we must be prepared . . . to give and hazard all we have" in the pursuit of democracy. Weldon Rougeau, the nineteen-year-old chair of Baton Rouge CORE, was the perfect example of ER's new passion for protest. The Southern University student spent fifty-seven days in an isolated seven-foot-square cell until bond was posted for his 90-second picket of a downtown department store that refused to integrate its retail staff at lunch counters. When released, he resumed his distribution of "don't buy" leaflets, was rearrested, and resentenced to seventy-eight days in solitary confinement. As she told the organizers and politicians she solicited for CORE, his "conviction and willingness to sacrifice himself" impressed her greatly. "The only way we can change human behavior," ER wrote in I962, "is by human behavior, and behavior is modified and changed and developed and transformed by training and surroundings, by social custom and economic pressure.

Those who practiced what she preached held a special place in ER's conscience. As she confided to her secretary Maureen Corr after Corr asked ER why she was humming at breakfast, "I had the most wonderful dream last night, Maureen. I dreamt I was marching and singing and sitting in with students in the South." Consequently, protecting the civil rights of civil rights activists became one of Eleanor Roosevelt's top priorities.

Marvin Rich, community relations director for CORE, who recognized the depth of ER's commitment to civil disobedience, requested that she write the introduction to "Cracking the Color Line." Designed to "describe techniques [CORE] has found effective in eliminating racial discrimination" in public recreational, educational, and employment facilities as well as confronting barriers to voting and housing, the twenty-six-page pamphlet presented a "how-to-do-it approach" by examining successful "action projects." ER gladly accepted the assignment. "Advocating civil rights," she wrote, did not "constitute criminal anarchy."

While much of ER's support for student civil rights activism was firmly grounded in her idealistic concept of democracy, when the students' lives were threatened the hard-nosed political realist in ER took over. ER was outraged when white citizens groups attacked the Freedom Riders in Mississippi and Alabama; she immediately responded to requests for aid from the Congress of Racial Equality. She took CORE attorney Carl Rachin's complaints against Mississippi Judge Ellis directly to the president and when John Kennedy failed to give the response she wanted, she continued to press his brother the attorney general for a reprimand.

While the Kennedy administration deliberated over what course to take to protect the Freedom Riders, Eleanor Roosevelt and CORE pressured the media to pay more attention to the violence the activists encountered. Although suffering from the illness that would kill her six months later, ER became so incensed by the violence that she left her sick bed that spring to serve as convener of the Committee of Inquiry into the Administration of Justice in the Freedom Struggle. "We cannot allow such sacrifices to be made without raising our voices in protest," she argued when she asked prominent civil libertarians to join the Committee. If the administration and the Congress refused to act to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of the activists, then public pressure had to be exerted to force the government to live up to its responsibilities.

Convened by CORE in May I962, the Committee held two days of hearings to educate the public about, and pressure the media to devote more attention to, the "legal roadblocks" used throughout the South to deprive black citizens of their civil rights. With ER chairing, the seven-member panel heard testimony from such civil rights activists as Bob Moses Weldon Rougeau, and Albert Bigelow. Throughout the weekend, the Committee heard witnesses recount: the lack of police protection for nonvlolent demonstrators; police violence against peaceful demonstrators; police use of dogs, tear gas, water hoses, and billy clubs, the fact that violent white racists were almost never arrested and that courts and police took almost no actions against them; the high bail and bond assigned civil rights cases; the obstruction of the ordinary channels of raising bond and bail, the excessive sentences imposed for civil rights actions and the brutality of jail officials.

As chair of the Committee, ER engaged in her last public fight for civil rights. At the age of seventy-seven, ill with tuberculous and aplastic anemia she entered the Community Room of the Washington Post Building determined to assemble the testimony necessary to force reluctant members of Congress to press their local officials to comply with federal statutes As the day progressed and witness after witness described in great detail the physical and emotional violence they had encountered during their work for civil rights, ER's patience wore thin. After the lunch break, she displayed a rare burst of temper. When Committee counsel Joe Rauh objected to citing the names of corrupt judges for the record, she banged her gavel and abruptly discounted his pleas to enter executive session. These officials should be accountable for their conduct, she retorted. The public should know how unjust some justices were. As chair, ER won the dispute. The offending of officials' names were entered into the public record.

Just as the violence in Columbia, Tennessee, framed the beginning of ER's postwar civil rights activism, so holding the perpetrators of violence accountable in the Committee of Inquiry into the Administration of Justice in the Freedom Struggle completed her commitment. Her experience on the Committee was "one of the most difficult experiences [she had] ever been through." Although all the presidents of the three national television news divisions and the publishers of twenty major newspapers responded defensively to her criticisms and promised more prominent coverage of the attacks on civil rights advocates, she could detect no discernible difference in their coverage. And while the Kennedys ultimately took steps to protect the Freedom Riders, she believed that this action was too little, too late. She "found it terribly painful," she wrote two months later in Tomorrow Is Now, "to accept the fact that things such as I have described could happen here. . . . This was the kind of thing the Nazis had done to the Jews in Germany." How little the nation had progressed in its "practical application of democratic principles.

During the last twenty-seven years of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt worked to bring racially inclusive democratic principles to practical politics. As she aged, she became more assertive in supporting a multifaceted approach to combating racial injustice. In this struggle, she became convinced that for democracy to succeed, America must address its racism. While she often succumbed to moments of bitter frustration, she nevertheless strove to trust "the future of essential democracy." It was a delicate, often disheartening balance.

Such heartfelt and consistent commitment to civil rights placed her in a unique position among party officials and civil rights activists. While they might disagree with her positions, they could never question her dedication. Therefore, Martin Luther King, Jr., could write her after a conference they had in I96I discussing the best way to pressure Kennedy into issuing executive orders on civil rights issues, "I am always inspired by your words and your presence." Bayard Rustin could argue that Coretta Scott King should stop presenting herself as Martin Luther King's widow and should begin modeling herself after ER. And Conrad Lynn, when asked to assess ER's understanding of racism and civil rights, could reflect thirty years after her death that "she was to the left of the NAACP. She was the only one there who saw the big picture-the social and the political.

Casting Her Own Shadow

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