Eleanor Roosevelt Stands for Civil Rights – Her Four Freedoms
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The First Lady defends her advocacy of civil rights: “I doubt if it does any people anywhere any harm to tell them that you believe they are entitled to certain rights and you are willing to see them obtain those rights” and counters the writer’s fear of using mixed-race bathrooms at work: “if you have to use the same toilets and wash basins...[and] are nervous, there are certain precautions which you can always take.” ELEANOR ROOSEVELT.
Typed Letter Signed as First Lady, to Addie Frizielle. Washington, D.C., May 13, 1944. 1 p., 61/8 x 9¼ in. On White House stationery, with original envelope.
May 13, 1944
Dear Miss Frizielle:
I have not advocated social equality between colored and white people. That is a personal thing which nobody can advocate. Nobody can tell me whom I shall have inside my house, any more than I can tell others.
The only things which I have advocated are four basic rights which I believe every citizen in a democracy must enjoy. These are the right for equal education, the right to work for equal pay according to ability, the right to justice under the law, the right to participate in the making of the laws by use of the ballot.
Questions beyond that are personal things and people must decide them for themselves.
I am sure it is true that here in Washington you have found some discourteous colored people. I have found colored people who were discourteous, and I have also found white people who were discourteous. As a matter of fact, I doubt if it does any people anywhere any harm to tell them that you believe they are entitled to certain rights and you are willing to see them obtain those rights.
If you have to use the same toilets and wash basins where you work, then all of you must have to take physical examinations, in which case I think you are as safe as you would be in any place where a great many people are coming and going. If you are nervous, there are certain precautions which you can always take.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a staunch advocate for equal rights, whether women’s rights, international human rights, or civil rights for African Americans. She began her social activism in the early twentieth century by working at the College Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There, Roosevelt taught physical education to the children of immigrants. It exposed her, and her future husband, to the plight of impoverished industrial workers, and helped open FDR to the possibilities of helping alleviate poverty and social problems.
After FDR became President, Eleanor toured the nation, witnessing the effects of the Great Depression on rural areas, especially in African American communities. She then pressured the Subsistence Homestead Administration to allow African Americans into Arthurdale, a planned community designed to create economic self-sufficiency. Her efforts failed, but it highlighted the depths of institutional racism in the United States. Roosevelt lobbied for civil rights inside her husband’s administration and to the general public via radio and print media. She fought against lynching and segregation, even resigning her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when they barred black opera singer Marian Andersen from performing in Constitution Hall. Instead, Roosevelt arranged for Andersen to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and urged media outlets to promote the concert on television and radio.
In her 1940 book, The Moral Basis of Democracy, Roosevelt argued for the universal rights of access to education, housing, economic opportunity, and employment, as well as the government’s obligation to protect its citizens from discrimination. Contrasting the avowed racist policies of Nazism and fascism, Roosevelt believed civil rights were the lynchpin of American democracy. She was a strong advocate of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and defended her support of integration efforts at Detroit’s Sojourner Truth housing project for defense industry workers even after it resulted in a race riot. After FDR’s death and her exit from the White House in 1945, Roosevelt joined the Boards of Directors of the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). She had many African American friends and associates, and her commitment to civil rights steadily increased from the 1920s onward.
By contrast, Addie Frizielle’s fears of shared bathrooms reflect the tensions resulting from longstanding prejudice and a racial order in wartime flux.
This same issue was well expressed in the 2009 novel The Help. Author Kathryn Stockett’s character Hilly Holbrook drafts a “Home Health Sanitation Initiative” requiring white homes to have separate bathrooms for their black maids:
- Hilly Holbrook: They carry different diseases than we do. That’s why I’ve drafted the Home Health Sanitation Initiative.
- Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan: The what?
- Hilly: A disease-preventative bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. It’s been endorsed by the White Citizen’s Council.
- Skeeter: Maybe we should just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.
Roosevelt clearly found Frizielle’s concerns ridiculous, though the former First Lady’s cool response reflects her considerable diplomatic skills.
“Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.
“Eleanor Roosevelt 1884 – 1962,” Black History Review.