Championing Civil Rights
excerpted from the book
Casting Her Own Shadow
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Her Own Shadow