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A New Deal:  Eleanor and Race

Eleanor and Race

Until the 1930s, racial justice was not a cause that engaged Eleanor Roosevelt. But as she traveled around the nation she saw for herself the depth of racial discrimination in America and resolved to do whatever she could to combat it. In January 1934, she invited NAACP director Walter White and other African American leaders to the White House for an unprecedented meeting. Soon after, she began pressuring New Deal agencies to end discrimination in pay and work assignments, lobbying FDR to appoint blacks to administrative positions in New Deal agencies, and pushing her husband to support anti-lynching legislation.

ER's outspoken advocacy generated a powerful response from African Americans. Segregationists reacted with hatred and outrage. The Ku Klux Klan threatened her. Undeterred, ER grew more outspoken in her attacks on racial inequality.

Marian Anderson, the DAR, & Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt became involved in a famous event in civil rights history. In January, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused a request to let renowned African American contralto Marian Anderson perform in Constitution Hall, their Washington, DC auditorium. The nation's capital was racially segregated and the DAR had an unwritten policy of allowing only white performers.

Despite public pressure, the DAR continued to deny Anderson use of the auditorium. Seeking to signal her disapproval, ER invited Anderson to perform at the White House. Then, on February 26, she resigned from the DAR. Mrs. Roosevelt then worked quietly with others to promote the idea of an outdoor concert by Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson's stirring April 9 concert attracted 75,000 people. The DAR's refusal to let Anderson perform, ER's resignation, and the Lincoln Memorial concert together focused national attention on America's color barrier.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum Home Page   National Archives and Records Administration
Lobby Foundations of a Public Life A New Deal FDR's "Act of Faith" The Promise of Change America, 1932: A Nation in Fear Temporary Exhibit Gallery War!  Lower level FDR's Death and Legacy First Lady Behind the scenes Legacy Resignation letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr., February 26, 1939. ER's "My Day" Column Draft, February 27, 1939.