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What Are You Fighting For?

I have the feeling that we let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it—but we did nothing to prevent it. I hope that in the future, we are going to remember that there can be no compromise at any point with the things that we know are wrong. —Eleanor Roosevelt, 1946 1

The war opened doors for many of those who suffered during the Depression and who had previously faced scorn and contempt. As early as 1940, the Roosevelt administration began to convert many American plants into armament factories. The government funneled millions of dollars in federal contracts to main industrial centers, and especially to Detroit’s auto industry. Indeed, a year before America entered the war in 1941, President Roosevelt had issued “a call to arm and support” the Allies in Europe. He knew well that isolationists still had the upper hand and would not allow America to enter the war directly at this point. In a famous fireside talk to the nation, President Roosevelt argued that America had to use its vast industrial capacity to protect the free world. Furthermore, it had to serve as the “arsenal for democracy” and supply America’s bankrupt ally, Britain, with the “material support” necessary to fight Hitler’s aggression.

Soon ships, ammunition, shells, tanks, and military vehicles began to roll off American assembly lines. Millions of workers were retrained and hired to serve in factories converted to wartime production use. Among them were many women, who trained as industrial workers and took on jobs that traditionally went to men. Fueled by federal dollars, the defense industry shifted to high gear, eliminated large pockets of unemployment, and began to pull America out of the Depression of the 1930s. However, African Americans, who were called upon to participate in the war against German racism, did not share the same benefits of the economic boom as whites. Responding to industry recruiters, many blacks migrated from the South to industrial centers in the North and the West (an estimated 1.5 million blacks emigrated from the South during the 1940s).2 Many of them, however, were turned down; racial discrimination and segregation were widespread. Those who did find jobs experienced discrimination in other areas, including in transportation, in schools, and in housing opportunities.

Responding to stories of flagrant discrimination in the media, civil rights activists, including Eleanor, began to protest: How could the same government that sent blacks to fight Nazi racism allow racial discrimination in almost every aspect of American life?3

Leon Bass, an African American veteran of World War II, recently recalled his conflicting feelings about the role of African Americans in the war. After volunteering to serve in the war, he was trained in the segregated South. He was then sent to Europe, where his experiences provoked deep doubts about what he was doing. “What are you fighting for?” he asked himself.

I asked that question because I remembered I could not get a drink of water at a public water fountain back home; I couldn’t get a meal at a restaurant back home; they would not let me have a seat on a bus back home. So what was I doing here? What was I fighting for? I was but 19 years of age. . . . I was an angry, angry, young black soldier. I felt my country was using me, abusing me, putting me out there in harm’s way to fight and maybe die, to preserve all those wonderful things that every American should enjoy, but at the same time my country was saying to me, “Leon, you are not good enough to enjoy what you are fighting for!"4


The war instilled a stronger sense of urgency in the hearts of many. For activists such as Eleanor, the birthplace of the New Deal could only thrive if every group participated in the American dream. This was a time of reckoning: “There is going to be almost an entire continent of vast natural resources under the direction of an opposing philosophy to ours, and an opposing economic system,” she warned her readers in 1940. Americans, she argued, could no longer shun certain questions: “[H]ow much Democracy [do] we have and how much [do] we want to have”? How much democracy America had—indeed, how democratic it was—was intimately connected to the issue of racial and economic injustice. For, in America, Eleanor stated plainly, “[w]e have poverty which enslaves, and racial prejudice which does the same.” Eleanor, who raised the issues of housing, education, and equal employment opportunity for all to the top of her agenda during the war, spelled out what choosing democracy should mean: at the very least, it would be “achieving an economic level below which no one is permitted to fall.” One could not expect to beat Hitler at his own game, she added. He was far too efficient, organized, and brutal in enslaving the European continent to serve his expansionist aspirations. Americans therefore had a very clear choice: “Either we must make our economic system work to the satisfaction of all of our people, or we are going to find it extremely difficult to compete against the one which will be set upon on the Continent of Europe.”5

Many Americans did not share Eleanor’s moral vision of democracy, but news of flagrant discrimination in the defense industry rallied civil rights activists. The same year that Eleanor made these remarks, black activists also responded. Led by black union organizer A. Philip Randolph, they approached the administration, demanding that discrimination in the defense industry be outlawed and that the government order factories and job-retraining programs to accept people of all colors. In September of 1940, President Roosevelt denied their request.

Thus far, the struggle for civil rights had been carried out through letters, behind-the-scenes pressure, negotiation, and in the courts. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Randolph and his colleagues realized that these strategies were not likely to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of unemployed blacks. They set their eyes on a massive demonstration in Washington, DC, and began to mobilize blacks around the country. News of preparations for the demonstration reached the White House, and estimates suggested that as many as 100,000 people were planning to march on Washington in July 1940.

Eleanor, whose views about the injustice of racial inequality in America were well known by this point, had traveled and spoken to many black communities throughout the spring, gaining their trust and support. Worried about the volatile situation, Franklin asked her to pressure Randolph to cancel the march. He sent her and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to meet Walter White and Randolph in New York. Eleanor expressed her fear that anti-black sentiment was rife beneath the surface in Washington and that violence was likely to erupt if the plan was put into action. Despite the warning, the civil rights leaders did not yield. Randolph and White told Eleanor and LaGuardia that they were determined to carry out the march unless the president ordered the defense industry to integrate. On her return, Eleanor informed the president that only an antidiscrimination order would avert the crisis. A week before the march was due to take place, Roosevelt finally issued Executive Order 8802. The ordinance prohibited discrimination in the national defense industry on the basis of race and set the precedent for future legislation promoting equal opportunity in the United States. A thankful Randolph sent a telegram to Eleanor, informing her that the march would not be necessary at that time.6

The president’s ordinance opened high-paying jobs to many African Americans, increasing their proportion of the war production force from 3 to 9 percent between 1942 and 1945. But the antidiscrimination executive order did not ease wartime racial tension and violence, which peaked in 1943 with 250 incidents in 47 cities.7 In Detroit, the major source of tension shifted from the work situation to housing. Since the war began, over 300,000 new white workers and 50,000 blacks descended on the city to take advantage of the economic boom. Detroit became a much more crowded city in a matter of months, as the new residents strained public transportation, parks, and schools. Their arrival created a housing crisis. The administration responded by funding housing projects from which, with few exceptions, blacks were barred. Restricted to a small number of crowded neighborhoods, blacks realized that the North was often just as racist as the South. With full employment, an excessive population, and thousands of homeless or semi-homeless people, the bustling city saw an ever-growing number of street-corner fights.

Eleanor pleaded with administration officials to use public housing programs for slum clearance and for projects designed to benefit blacks as well as whites. Charles Palmer, the coordinator of this federal program, opposed her proposal. A relentless Eleanor then turned to Roosevelt’s director of defense housing, Clark Foreman, who devised a plan to allocate funds to a project called the Sojourner Truth Homes. The goal was to provide homes near working-class white neighborhoods for low-income African Americans. White neighbors, many of Polish Catholic descent, were alarmed: how could the government force their neighborhoods to accept blacks? In January 1942, under pressure from white residents, officials from Washington forced Clark Foreman to resign and turned the project’s intended occupants from blacks to whites. Civil rights leaders turned to Eleanor to intercede. She did, and her intervention convinced Franklin to reverse the whites-only policy.

In February 1942, escorted by a large group of supporters, two dozen black families attempted to move into their new homes. They were confronted by an armed mob. Violence and the burning of crosses followed. The black tenants turned back, and the project was temporarily suspended. Despite simmering resentment, at the end of April 1942, black families, escorted by hundreds of state and local police officers, made their way to their Sojourner Truth Project homes. But in June 1943, Detroit’s racial tensions boiled over; occasional street-corner scrimmages turned into a horrific riot. During 36 hours of riots, mobs turned over cars and looted stores. In all, 1800 people were arrested, 6 policemen were shot, and 25 blacks and 9 whites died. Many more, disproportionately blacks, were injured and imprisoned. Only after President Roosevelt sent in federal troops in armed vehicles did the worst wartime race riots come to an end.

Eleanor, who was involved in previous attempts to build neighborly cooperation, was distraught. Still, some held her responsible for the riots because she encouraged blacks to cross the color lines and to challenge segregation. Eleanor began receiving hate mail and threats.

In one such letter, C. B. Alexander of Knoxville, Tennessee, accused Eleanor of upsetting the existing norms that had kept race relations stable for generations. Among other things, he wrote, Eleanor encouraged “the [N]egro to think that he can sit and ride in any place he chooses. When he places himself where he doesn’t belong, he causes trouble.” Alexander then went on to argue that

[w]e people of the South know the [N]egro; we know how to control him. We don’t hate him, we don’t persecute him, we treat him as well as he is treated anywhere so long as he stays in his place, but it must be remembered that there are inferior people just as there are inferior animals. You know there are fine bred dogs, fine bred cattle, fine bred swine, etc....
All of we Southern people teach our children that they are superior to the [N]egro....Naturally our children will teach their children likewise; hence the South will always be as she is today. Treat all human beings as you would like to be treated, but remember your blood.8


Eleanor’s position on Detroit’s riots sharpened. She adamantly protested police brutality that targeted blacks and denounced the pervasive racist attitudes displayed by the police and the white mob that instigated the violence. The riots made her “sick at heart,” she argued, because they “put us on a par with Nazism.”9 She went on:

We cannot settle strikes by refusing to understand their causes; we cannot prepare for a peaceful world unless we give proof of self-restraint, of open-mindedness, of courage to do right at home, even if it means changing our traditional thinking and, for some of us, a sacrifice of our material interests.10


She would have said a lot more, apparently, but in private she acknowledged that this was “the most F[ranklin] would be willing to have me say. He feels that he must not irritate the Southern leaders as he needs their votes for essential war bills.”11

  1. Citations

    • 1 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Speech Before Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York,” in Allida M. Black, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Volume 1: The Human Rights Years, 1945– 1948 (New York: Thomson Gale, 2007), 255–58.
    • 2 Charles M. Lamb, Housing Segregation in Suburban America since 1960: Presidential and Judicial Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 27.
    • 3 Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 247.
    • 4 “I Had Come to Face Evil: Leon Bass Talks about His Experiences of Racism,” Facing History and Ourselves website. Bass was among the American soldiers who entered the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany after its liberation in April 1945. On encountering the unspeakable crimes committed there, he realized that the struggle against racism must be carried out everywhere.
    • 5 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Moral Basis of Democracy” (1940), in What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 80.
    • 6 Allida M. Black, ed., What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 250–51.
    • 7 Elly Green provided suggestions and corrections in this section.
    • 8 C. B. Alexander (letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, August 17, 1943), ER Papers Misc 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. For similar letters, see Cathy D. Knepper, ed., Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters to Eleanor Roosevelt through Depression and War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 326–30.
    • 9 Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day (column), July 14, 1943. The full text of Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day columns can be found at the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project website.
    • 10 Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day (column), July 14, 1943.
    • 11 Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 675, quoting a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to himself from July 11, 1943.

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