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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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Eleanor turned to others for emotional support and intimacy. According to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, one of these others was Lorena Hickok, an AP reporter assigned to follow the first lady. Their daily letters included both political observations and expressions of love.

Eleanor forged a long-term friendship with a socialist union organizer from New York City, with whom she walked picket lines.

World War I offered Eleanor an outlet for her organizing talents. She organized a Union Station canteen for American soldiers on their way to training camps, led Red Cross activities, supervised the knitting rooms at the Navy department, and spoke at patriotic rallies. She visited wounded soldiers in the hospital and led an effort to improve conditions at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental hospital in Washington, D.C.

During the Red Scare that followed the war, Eleanor renewed her reform impulses. She became active in several groups that the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, considered dangerously radical. She coordinated the League of Women Voters’ legislative efforts, mobilizing members to lobby for bills. In 1922 she joined the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), which included wealthy reformers, working-class women, and radical activists. She taught classes, raised money, and participated in the WTUL’s support for bills to require shorter working days and better wages for women workers.

Through the WTUL, Eleanor forged a long-term friendship with Rose Schneiderman—a socialist union organizer from New York Citywith whom she walked picket lines. J. Edgar Hoover, a close aide to Palmer who later became FBI director, kept a file on Eleanor for many years.

A radical voice in the president’s ear

As FDR rose through the ranks—first to governor of New York in 1928 and then to president in 1932—Eleanor constantly had to find her footing as a public person. By the time he was elected governor, FDR was stricken with polio, leaving him unable to walk. Eleanor became his eyes and ears, investigating conditions at hospitals, asylums, and prisons.

Eleanor not only supported organizing efforts, she joined a union herself.

Eleanor’s involvement with reform movements prepared her to become the most influential and politically progressive first lady in American history. “No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband and [and say] to him ‘Franklin, I think you should’ or, ‘Franklin surely you will not’ will ever forget the experience,” wrote Rexford Tugwell, a key FDR aide.

When she became first lady in 1933, Eleanor devoted considerable time to those hardest hit by poverty, visiting an encampment of World War I veterans (referred to at the time as “Bonus Marchers”) in Washington, sharecroppers in the South, and people on breadlines in San Francisco. Her public support for union organizing drives among coal miners, garment workers, textile workers, and tenant farmers (including the racially integrated and left-wing Southern Tenant Farmers Union) lent visibility and credibility to their efforts.

As Brigid O’Farrell documents in her book, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, Eleanor not only supported organizing efforts; she joined a union herself. In 1936, she proudly and publicly became a member of the American Newspaper Guild at a time when workers were being beaten, and some killed, for participating in organizing drives, strikes, and sit-down protests.

As first lady, Roosevelt donated the proceeds from her radio broadcasts to the Womens Trade Union League and promoted the WTUL in her columns and speeches. She invited women and union activists, including Schneiderman, to the White House and Hyde Park, seating them next to FDR so he could hear their concerns. As Schneiderman recalled in her autobiography, Eleanor overcame the trappings of privilege to become “a born trade unionist.”

She pushed to give women a larger voice in the Democratic Party and urged FDR to appoint women (including Perkins, the first female Cabinet member) to key positions in government. And soon after becoming first lady, she began holding her own press conferences for women reporters only—in part to help preserve their jobs during the Depression.

An early friend of the Civil Rights movement

Eleanor was much bolder than FDR in opposing racism, segregation, and lynching. She became a close friend of Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as his advocate within the White House, and she made a point of publicly joining the civil rights organization. When she urged FDR to support federal legislation to end lynching, he refused to support the bill, worried that southern white voters—almost all of them Democrats—would abandon the party. Eleanor supported and occasionally visited the Highlander Folk School, a controversial left-wing training center for civil rights activists in rural Tennessee.

The American people found Eleanor approachable, even as she was ridiculed in the press as being both dowdy and a publicity hound.

In November 1938, a racially mixed crowd of 1,500 people packed into the city auditorium in Birmingham, Ala., to kick off the four-day Southern Conference on Human Welfare. The gathering was organized to address the South’s social problems, including poverty, poor education, and the infamous poll tax that prevented black citizens from voting.

The next morning the auditorium was surrounded by police. Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the integrated crowd to separate according to race or face arrest. The crowd obeyed, with black people sitting on one side, and white people on the other. Eleanor arrived later, accompanied by African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Aubrey Williams, head of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration. Eleanor sized up the situation and sat down on the side with the African Americans. One of the policemen tapped her on the shoulder and told her to move. Instead, she calmly moved her chair between the white and black sections, and there she remained.

Her husband avoided such direct support for civil rights. But sometimes Eleanor brought him over to her side. In 1939, she resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution after it refused to rent its Constitution Hall to black opera singer Marian Anderson, who had previously sung at the White House. Instead, Eleanor worked behind the scenes to arrange for Anderson to sing to 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1940, she persuaded FDR to meet with the NAACP’s Walter White and labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who were threatening to hold a mass march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African Americans from key defense industry jobs as the nation was preparing for war. After two meetings, FDR agreed to issue an executive order against racial discrimination in defense employment, if the civil rights leaders would cancel their proposed march. He did, and they kept their promise.

Eleanor developed a strong voice as a public speaker and prolific writer of magazine articles and books. Her syndicated column, "My Day," about her life in the White House, appeared six times a week in some 180 papers around the country. She also lectured widely and spoke frequently on the radio. Through her column and radio broadcasts, she described the desperate conditions and human suffering she saw during her travels, but she also gave voice to the activists fighting for change and the people helped by the New Deal's relief programs.

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