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Eleanor: The Radical Roosevelt

Hollywood just can’t seem to tell the truth about Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a fierce defender of human rights. Historian Peter Dreier steps in to set the record straight.
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The American people found Eleanor approachable and caring, even as she was ridiculed in the press as being both dowdy and a publicity hound. During her first year in the White House, more than 300,000 people wrote to her. She personally answered many of the letters and forwarded the rest to federal agencies for a response.

Eleanor was involved for decades in promoting peace and international understanding as well. She tried to convince FDR to support the Permanent Court of International Justice, commonly called the World Court, which had been set up after World War I to settle disputes among nations. Privately, FDR agreed with the idea, but he considered it too risky politically and allowed the Senate to reject U.S. membership in the court by a seven-vote margin.

Starting in 1939, as the Nazis were engaged in genocide against Jews, Eleanor fought for special legislation to admit Jewish refugees, especially children, to the United States. But without FDR’s public support the idea went nowhere.

During World War II—in which all four of the Roosevelt sons served—Eleanor visited troops in London and in the South Pacific. She won over Admiral William Halsey, who had derided her for what he considered her do-goodism and meddling, when she spent exhausting days personally comforting wounded soldiers.

“She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area,” Halsey said.

An activist in her own right

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor assumed she would retire, but the new president, Harry S. Truman, sought her advice. He also appointed her to the five-person U.S. delegation at the first meeting of the U.N. General Assembly held in London in 1946. She played a surprising and pivotal role, addressing the full assembly without notes, and swaying the vote against forced repatriation of refugees, allowing them to choose where they wished to settle.

She attacked efforts by business lobby groups to get states to adopt anti-union “right-to-work” laws, similar to the one Michigan passed in 2012.

For three years, Eleanor lobbied, debated, and maneuvered to get the United Nations to adopt a statement on human rights. In 1948 she chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and under her leadership the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, passed, at 3:00 a.m. on December 10, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that still serves as a benchmark for activists around the world. Working closely with labor leaders, she made sure that workers’ rights were a key part of that document.

Eleanor continued to write her newspaper column, endorsed and campaigned for liberal Democrats, appeared frequently on television and radio shows discussing current events, and averaged 150 speaking engagements a year in the United States and the world.

Even during the height of the Cold War, Eleanor did not compromise her outspoken progressive views. In 1953, for example, she was a charter subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a controversial political newsletter written by the radical journalist, whom conservatives and even some liberals accused of being a subversive. In 1959, on behalf of the National Consumers League, Eleanor testified before Congress in support of increasing the federal minimum wage. That year, she wrote columns attacking efforts by business lobby groups to get states to adopt anti-union “right-to-work” laws (similar to the one Michigan passed in 2012). These campaigns, she wrote, were based on “dishonesty and deception.” Their “real aim is to destroy American labor.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was a bold progressive and one of the most well-known and admired people in the United States and around the world.

In 1960, she spoke to 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden—along with socialist Norman Thomas, labor leader Walter Reuther, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, and singer Harry Belafonte—at a rally against the escalating arms race between the U.S. and Russia, sponsored by the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.

That year, Eleanor wrote one of the first checks to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a radical civil rights organization that student activists had formed to sustain the momentum of the sit-in movement at southern lunch counters to protest segregation. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Eleanor as chair of a new Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Although Eleanor died the next year, just before the commission issued its final report, she had already played an important role in shaping the commission’s work, which helped catalyze the modern feminist movement.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a bold progressive and, from the 1930s until her death, one of the most well-known and admired people in the United States and around the world. The Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Center, located at her former home in Hyde Park, carries out her legacy through leadership and activist training programs for young women.

There is probably no person alive today—with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela—who commands that kind of respect. It is time for Hollywood to make a film about the real Eleanor, the radical Roosevelt.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).


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