An Insider for Civil Rights
Mrs. Roosevelt became a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement only after arriving at the White House, when she gained a clear understanding of the devastating hardships wrought by entrenched institutional racism. She saw first-hand the nearly impenetrable barriers that African-Americans faced at Arthurdale, an experimental community funded by the Subsistence Homestead Administration that was closely and passionately planned by Mrs. Roosevelt. Despite her wishes for an integrated community in the planning process, and despite the pressure she put on the community to integrate, ER’s efforts failed entirely. Having gained a new perspective on the matter, Mrs. Roosevelt soon became an important ally of the civil rights movement.
In 1934, Mrs. Roosevelt became an active proponent of anti-lynching legislation, one of the most politically-sensitive topics that she would ever confront. At the time, much of the nation found itself in disgust over the continued presence of, and lack of prosecution against, frenzied Southern lynch mobs. The Costigan-Wagner Bill, sponsored by Colorado Senator Edward P. Costigan and New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, was a piece of anti-lynching legislation first introduced in 1934. The bill’s supporters made numerous attempts to persuade President Roosevelt to support the bill, but those attempts failed because the President was afraid of the repercussions of angering the openly racist Southern congressional voting bloc. Proponents of the Bill quickly turned to ER for help.
The letters below highlight the close working relationship that Mrs. Roosevelt had with Walter White of the NAACP, and the extent to which Mrs. Roosevelt actively lobbied her husband to support the bill. These letters show the inner workings and internal considerations that were made. The letters vary in tone and reflect the passion behind the issue. The letters range from tense, to grateful, to disappointed.
Enthusiasm defined many of the letters between Walter White and Mrs. Roosevelt in 1934. Both believed that the anti-lynching bill would soon become law.
In early 1935, the letters became more critical as the President failed to come out in public support of the bill. Even so, Walter White believed there was still a chance.
By May 1935, it had become clear that the President put political interests above the civil rights movement. In the handwritten letter below, a defeated Mr. White personally thanks Mrs. Roosevelt for her “deep personal interest in the bill."
Although grateful of Mrs. Roosevelt’s role, Walter White had little positive to say about the President. On May 6, 1935, White resigned from the Advisory Council for the Government of the Virgin Islands due to FDR’s inaction on the anti-lynching bill. In the letter, Mr. White told the President, “I cannot continue to remain even a small part of your official family."
That same month, May 1935, a scathing editorial of the President was published and a copy of it was circulated to the members of the Senate.
"When the next mob dances in the light of flames about a stake in the south, [FDR's] declaration of high duty and intent will be a ghostly wisp of smoke, drifting off toward the heavens."
Walter White mailed Mrs. Roosevelt a copy of the editorial. She passed the letter along to her husband, having written a short note for FDR on the letter: “Pretty bitter, isn’t it? I can’t blame them though.."
FDR's refusal to act continued in 1936.
Even in the light of recurring failure, Mrs. Roosevelt remained a supporter of civil rights legislation. To honor her dedication to the cause, Mr. White presented Mrs. Roosevelt with a NAACP membership card in 1939. ER responded: “I am glad to accept it."