by Paul M. Sparrow, Director
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is a good time to explore one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s most outspoken campaigns, and one of her greatest disappointments. Throughout American history issues of race and civil rights have challenged our most precious core principal – that all people are created equal. During the first half of the 20th century, racial segregation and discrimination were the law in many states. The notorious Jim Crow laws in the South prevented African Americans from getting a decent education, from owning businesses and even from voting. Mrs. Roosevelt spoke out against all of these injustices.
The Democratic Party controlled most of the South, and many Southern Democrats held powerful senior positions in the House and Senate. Their intransigence prevented President Franklin Roosevelt from instituting wide ranging civil rights legislation. That opposition did not stop Eleanor Roosevelt, who strongly supported civil rights and was remarkably courageous in her words and actions supporting social justice for African Americans. In the 1950s her work so angered the Ku Klux Klan that they put a $25,000 bounty on her. She received death threats throughout her life because of her work.
Nothing reveals her commitment more than her efforts to outlaw lynching. The anti-lynching movement was as controversial then as the #blacklivesmatter movement is today. Between 1882 and 1968 more than 3,500 African Americans were murdered by lawless white mobs. There were 28 such murders in 1933 alone. The victims were often tortured, beaten, burned alive and hanged. Almost no one was arrested or convicted for these crimes.
In October of 1933, on Maryland’s eastern shore, George Armwood was lynched by “a frenzied mob of 3,000 men, women and children… who overpowered 50 State Troopers.” ( NY Times) The NAACP called on President Roosevelt to condemn the act. Then in November two white men were dragged out of a San Jose jail and hanged. On Dec. 6, 1933 in a nationally broadcast radio address FDR finally spoke his mind about lynching:
This new generation, for example, is not content with preachings against that vile form of collective murder – lynch law – which has broken out in our midst anew. We know that it is murder, and a deliberate and definite disobedience of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” We do not excuse those in high places or in low who condone lynch law.
In 1934, Mrs. Roosevelt joined the NAACP and started working with its leader Walter White to help pass federal anti-lynching legislation.
White had been fighting for this type of law since 1922, and helped get the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill before Congress.
While the bill had strong support, without the President’s personal commitment it was unlikely to get to the floor for a vote. President Roosevelt desperately needed the powerful Southern Democrats in the Senate to pass his New Deal legislation and did not want to risk alienating them over the anti-lynching bill. Tensions were high and so were the stakes. White tried to get an appointment to see the President but was turned down. The President’s closest advisors opposed supporting the bill. White then turned to Mrs. Roosevelt, and she arranged for a private meeting at the White House on May 7, 1934.
Roosevelt friend and biographer Joe Lash later wrote that Mr. White arrived before the President had returned from an outing, and he sat with Eleanor Roosevelt and her mother-in-law Sara and had tea. As he describes it, FDR arrived in good cheer, having spent the afternoon on the Potomac River. But the mood soon changed. As the President explained his predicament, giving one reason after another why he couldn’t support the bill, White countered with detailed arguments. Finally, exasperated, FDR said:
“Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” He looked accusingly at Mrs. Roosevelt.
He explained to White that “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass the keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” (Lash)
Then in October Claude Neal, an African American farm worker in Florida, was arrested for the rape and murder of Lola Cannady, a white woman. He was abducted from the jail where he was being held, and the leaders of the lynch mob notified the press that justice would be served at the Cannady farm. Hundreds of people turned out to watch the lynching. The mob was so unruly that Neal was taken to a secret location, brutally tortured, castrated and killed. His mutilated body was hung outside the county courthouse. Sheriffs buried Neal, but a large crowd gathered demanding to see the body and a riot broke out. Nearly 200 African Americans were attacked and injured during the riot. The National Guard was eventually brought in to control the mob. The lynching and subsequent riot attracted massive news coverage, and many Americans were outraged and disgusted.
The murder of Claude Neal helped shift public opinion in favor of the anti-lynching laws. It also increased tensions between Walter White and the President. Mrs. Roosevelt found herself a lone voice in support of the anti-lynching act inside the White House. To show her support she attended the NAACP’s exhibition “Art Commentary On Lynching” which graphically depicted white mob violence against African Americans.
The President’s many enemies attacked Mrs. Roosevelt’s actions, and spread vicious rumors about her friendships with African Americans. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is reported to have thought she had “black blood.” ( source – https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/lesson-plans/notes-er-and-civil-rights.cfm_)
During January and February of 1935 Eleanor Roosevelt continually pressured the President to publicly support the Costigan bill. But when it came up for a vote, Southern Senators threatened a long filibuster that would effectively block everything on the calendar, including the Social Security Act, which was FDR’s most cherished accomplishment. Despite a heated campaign by White, President Roosevelt remained silent on the filibuster and the anti-lynching bill died without a vote.
The defeat was a bitter blow to Walter White and the NAACP. Mrs. Roosevelt herself was despondent over it. She wrote to Mr. White and told him that:
I am so sorry about the bill. Of course all of us are going on fighting, and the only thing we can do is hope that we will have better luck next time.
But “next time” was no better. In 1937 during another Senate filibuster of another anti-lynching bill, Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the Senate Gallery for days in silent rebuke of the shameful tactic. Once again the bill died without a vote. It was not until 2005 that the US Senate apologized formally for its shocking failure to pass any anti-lynching legislation “…when action was most needed.”
In her My Day column on Dec. 12, 1945, after seeing the Broadway play “Strange Fruit” she wrote this about lynching:
“We need to understand these circumstances in the North as well as in the South. There are mental and spiritual lynchings as well as physical ones, and few of us in this nation can claim immunity from responsibility for some of the frustrations and injustices which face not only our colored people, but other groups, who for racial, religious or economic reasons, are at a disadvantage and face a constant struggle for justice and equality of opportunity.”
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that lynchings and indeed ALL injustices targeting African Americans must be stopped. She believed strongly that black lives did matter. And she fought hardest and spoke out loudest for those who could not defend themselves or who had no voice. Ultimately her efforts to pass federal legislation to prevent lynchings were unsuccessful. But she continued her campaign for civil rights until she died in 1962.
Special thanks to Allida Black for her remarkable work on the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/
Eleanor And Franklin – Joseph P. Lash
Eleanor Roosevelt Vol.2 – Blanche Wiesen Cook
The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia – Beasley, Shulman & Beasley