Like many of us, Eleanor’s attitudes about race and civil rights evolved over time. By the time she came to Washington as First Lady, she had spent time working with the poor, as well as new immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. However, she had less experience working with African Americans. Several years later, when Eleanor left Washington, she was known as one of the most outspoken white supporters of civil rights for black Americans. This reading uses excerpts from two of Eleanor Roosevelt’s many speeches, essays, and newspaper columns addressing these issues to allow us insight into changes in the way that she approached civil rights.
In 1934, the year after she came to Washington, DC, Eleanor addressed a conference on the education of African Americans. Discussions of education often expose our most basic feelings about human potential. For example, if you do not believe that all students can achieve at the same level, your expectations and assumptions for them are not the same. In the 1930s, very few schools outside of colleges and universities were integrated. In many cases, black schools received far less financial support and far fewer resources. Education for blacks was considered inferior to the education offered to the majority of white students, and this served to block opportunities later in life.
Addressing the question of education for African Americans in her speech entitled, “The National Conference on the Education of Negroes,” Eleanor told her audience that education was bound to vary from one community to another, and while every race possessed certain gifts, we “cannot all become geniuses [and] we cannot all reach the same level.”
We have got to think it through and realize that, in the end, all of us, the country over, will gain if we have a uniformly educated people; that is to say, if everywhere every child has the opportunity to gain as much knowledge as his ability will allow him to gain. We know that there are in every race certain gifts, and therefore the people of the different races will naturally want to develop those gifts. If they are denied the opportunity to do so, they will always feel a frustration in their lives and a certain resentment against the people who have denied them this opportunity for self-expression.
I believe that the Negro race has tremendous gifts to bring to this country in the way of artistic development. I think things come by nature to many of them that we have to acquire, such as an appreciation of art and of music and of rhythm, which we really have to gain very often through education. I think that those things should be utilized for the good of the whole nation, that you should be allowed and helped to make your greatest contribution along the lines that you want and that give you joy.1
Such views reflected the stereotypes of the period. Over time, Eleanor became more involved in civil rights issues, developing personal friendships and political alliances with prominent African American leaders, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and later President Roosevelt’s national advisor on minority affairs, and NAACP executive secretary Walter White. By the 1940s, Eleanor’s public statements and advocacy for civil rights issues were well known. Lauded by some for her support of equal rights, she also received regular hate mail and death threats from white supremacists. Eleanor came to believe that civil rights were the true test of democracy.
At the same time, Eleanor understood that her positions on race were often seen as radical. So she worked to help ordinary Americans understand why she took the positions she did. In “The Minorities Question” (1945) Eleanor states:
The Second Commandment, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,” has often been before me when I haveheard people generalize about groups of their neighbors who, like them, are citizens of the United States.
There is no use in shutting our eyes to the fact that racial and religious tensions in this country are becoming more acute. They arise partly from experiences back in the past, experiences very often in other countries where wars were carried on between people of various nationalities. I think they persist in this country largely because of the insecurity of some of our people under our economic system. If times are hard, jobs scarce, and food hard to get, we always prefer that someone else be the victim of these difficult situations, and we fight to keep ourselves on top. We come to attribute certain characteristics to different races and nationalities.
We differentiate too little, and even where religions are concerned, if they are not our own, we are apt to lump people all together as doing certain things because they are Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant.
I have come to think, therefore, that the basic thing we must do is to stop generalizing about people. If we no longer thought of them as groups, but as individuals, we would soon find that they varied in their different groups as much as we do in our own. It seems to me quite natural to say: “I do not like John Jones.” The reasons may be many. But to say: “I do not like Catholics or Jews” is complete nonsense. . . . It is individuals we must know, not groups!
The Negroes perhaps suffer more from this lumping together of people than any other race. Because the South has created a picture, a charming one of mammys [sic], old-fashioned butlers and gardeners and day laborers, we must not believe that that is the whole picture. They have rarely shown us the picture of the intellectual or of the soldier or of the inventor. . . .
Many people will tell you they object to breaking down the barriers between the races or to allowing them to associate together without self-consciousness from the time they are children, because of their disapproval of intermarriage between races. They feel that races should stay pure blooded as far as possible. When people say that to me, I sometimes wonder if they have taken a good look at our population. If there ever was a nation where people have mixed blood, it is right here in the United States, and yet we seem to have remained a strong and virile nation. Besides, this particular objection which people advance is somewhat irrelevant since when people want to marry, they are usually past reasoning with!...
If we really believe in Democracy we must face the fact that equality of opportunity is basic to any kind of Democracy. Equality of opportunity means that all of our people, not just white people, not just people descended from English or Scandinavian ancestors, but all our people must have decent homes, a decent standard of health, and educational opportunities to develop their abilities as far as they are able. Thus they may be equipped with the tools for the work which they wish to do, and there must be equality of opportunity to obtain that work regardless of race or religion or color. . . .
What is needed is really not a self-conscious virtue which makes us treat our neighbors as we want to be treated, but an acceptance of the fact that all human beings have dignity, and the potentiality of development into the same kind of people we are ourselves. When we look at each individual without thinking of him as a Jew or as a Negro, but only as a person, then we may get to like him, or we may dislike him, but he stands on his own feet as an individual, and we stand with him on an equal basis. Together we are citizens of a great country. I may have had greater opportunity and greater happiness than he has had, and fewer obstacles to overcome, but basically we build our lives together, and what we build today sets the pattern for the future of the world.2
- How do these two documents differ? Why do you think Eleanor’s ideas of civil rights and race changed between 1934 and 1945? What happened to her during that time? What happened in the country and the world during that period? How has the way that you think about civil rights changed over time?
- Who is Eleanor addressing in both of these passages? What language does she employ to persuade her audience? How does she frame her discussion of race?
- How do Eleanor’s 1945 ideas about the value of the individual human being reflect her position on civil rights? Compare her ideas about race between the two documents.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, “The National Conference on the Education of Negroes” (address delivered at the National Conference on Fundamental Problems in the Education of Negroes, Washington, DC, May 11, 1934), reprinted in What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt, 142. 139
- Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Minorities Question,” as quoted in What I Hope to Leave Behind, 167–69.