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Eleanor Roosevelt: Civil Rights Pioneer Ahead of Her Time

by Amanda Smith

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady to the nation's 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a civil rights pioneer who fought for African American rights long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

During her husband's tenure as President from 1933 until his death in 1945 - indeed, throughout the rest of her life - Eleanor demonstrated her commitment to equal rights for all Americans, using her status as First Lady to make change for the black community in ways that only someone in her position could have done.

Many are unaware of the fight for equality that Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded for African American opera singer Marian Anderson in 1939. After the singer performed throughout Europe and at the White House in the early 1930s, Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for Anderson to use its Constitution Hall in Washington, DC for an Easter concert in 1939. The largest auditorium in the city (seating 4,000 people), Constitution Hall was the DAR's national headquarters, providing the perfect venue for an event of this kind. However, the DAR was an all-white association whose major donors had insisted that only whites could perform on the stage. When Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the DAR's refusal to allow Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall, she looked for the most effective way to protest their decision. As a member of the DAR (Eleanor had been granted membership only after her husband was elected President), she submitted her letter of resignation to the organization, claiming that the DAR had "an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way" but had “failed to do so." Eleanor then worked behind the scenes to insure that Anderson performed her Easter concert outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, an event attended by 75,000 people - black, white, young and old - in their Sunday best. Marian Anderson can be viewed singing America on YouTube at this filmed 1939 concert.

Eleanor Roosevelt was also a key supporter of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all black training program for pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. From 1941 until 1946, over 2,000 African Americans were trained at Tuskegee and nearly three quarters of them qualified as pilots. The 99th Pursuit Squadron was organized in May of 1942 and the Tuskegee Airmen saw combat in over 1,500 missions in Europe and Africa, an accomplishment aided by the First Lady. Interested in the work at Tuskegee, Eleanor had visited the Army Air Field and asked to take a flight with one of the pilots. Against the advice of Secret Service agents, First Lady Roosevelt was piloted by flight instructor Charles Anderson through the skies above Alabama for over an hour. This flight showed Eleanor that blacks could indeed fly planes and to mark the occasion, she had a photograph taken of her and Mr. Anderson immediately following the flight. Eleanor promptly took the picture to her husband and convinced him to utilize the 99th Squadron in combat missions. Eleanor also began a lengthy written correspondence with Cecil Peterson (a pilot chosen randomly as her correspondent) and with F.D. Patterson (president of the Tuskegee Institute) lending her support whenever possible.

In 1945, Eleanor joined the NAACP and later worked with Thurgood Marshall on housing and community planning for African Americans. She also supported CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) and fought against discrimination and the segregation of public schools. When she visited the segregated First Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, she refused to sit on either the "white side" or the "black side", choosing instead to have her chair placed in the center aisle between the two sides.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Eleanor Roosevelt fought for racial equality, lending her support to civil rights organizations and her voice to their tactics, promoting peaceful and legislative reform. She helped found the Southern Conference for Human Welfare; championed integration of public housing and schools; served on the NAACP National Board of Directors; chaired the National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee; endorsed the Southern Conference Education Fund; lobbied for federal civil rights statutes; supported the black students of Little Rock's Central High School; and criticized the violence that Freedom Riders encountered in Alabama and Mississippi. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt steadfastly acted on her convictions and challenged others to do the same, marking tremendous strides in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in America.



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Eleanor Roosevelt