Political polarization is not new, but if you subscribe to the Great Person theory of history, one individual in particular set in motion many of our present troubles. In short, it’s all Eleanor Roosevelt’s fault.
As first lady, Eleanor was media savvy, had a radio show, a widely read nationally syndicated newspaper column, and was a gifted communicator.
Despite marital difficulties, she is credited with nursing FDR through his crippling paralytic illness in 1921. She also urged him to stay in politics despite strong pressure from his mother to retire. His subsequent political successes led to a more prominent public role for her, giving speeches, networking, and shaping public opinion about FDR’s aggressive progressive agenda.
Until the 1930s, Black civil rights were not a high priority for the Democratic Party. Progressivism until then meant defending poor whites from the banks and the negative impacts of predatory capitalism.
Despite this general lack of attention from politicians, Black leaders fought relentlessly for more rights and better living conditions. Those Black leaders more often identified as Republican, thanks to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
Eleanor Roosevelt changed both progressive priorities and Black political allegiances by using the power of the White House for advocacy, hastening powerful changes. Three incidents are illustrative.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a successful Black entrepreneur, educator, and a tireless advocate for civil rights. Her activities led her to cross paths with Eleanor, and they became close friends.
In 1938, at a national civil rights conference in Birmingham, Alabama, Eleanor asked to be seated next to Mrs. Bethune in the “colored” section. The organizers refused due to local segregation laws, but Eleanor insisted, scandalizing racists all across the country.
Marian Anderson was a globally acclaimed and gifted opera singer. In the mid-1930s, she started performing benefit concerts for Howard University. The concerts were so successful each year, they moved to ever-larger venues. The planning for 1939 anticipated using DAR Constitution Hall, but the leadership there refused to allow a Black performer because of segregation.
Despite massive public protest, the DAR would not relent. Eleanor quietly lobbied for a concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Day. The Department of Interior agreed, and the concert was a resounding success, attended by an integrated crowd of over 75,000 and a national radio broadcast to millions more.
In 1941, Eleanor visited the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen training facility in Alabama, to witness their achievements. Because of segregation, there were no Black pilots in the military, and the recently formed program was very controversial.
While touring the facility, Eleanor insisted, over the Secret Service’s objections, that she fly with the lead instructor, “Chief” Anderson. He took her up alone, and flew around for half an hour in a small Piper Cub, shattering yet another racial barrier.
The 13 years of Eleanor’s leadership and advocacy as first lady impressed Black voters, accelerating a massive shift of allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats, and set up a powerful Republican backlash.
In 1948, President Truman desegregated the military and civil service, provoking Democratic southern segregationists led by Strom Thurmond to form the Dixiecrats for the 1948 presidential election, challenging Truman’s reelection. That effort failed, but set the stage for future defections.
Under moderate Republican President Eisenhower, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ended the legally sanctioned “separate but equal” racism of the Jim Crow laws. This enraged racist segregationists, and they began organizing the beginnings of the right wing conservative movement in response.
In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater earned southern segregationist support with his criticism of the Brown decision and vote against the recently passed Civil Rights Act. Racist southern Democrats flipped to the Republican Party, and Blacks and other ethnic groups further shifted to Democratic candidates.
Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign formalized the political weaponization of racism with the Southern Strategy. According to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “… you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”
Republican political operative Lee Atwater put it more directly in a 1981 interview: “You start out in 1954 by saying [the N-word]. By 1968 you can’t say [the N-word] — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”
These very effective methods worked for almost five decades.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s defiance of deeply ingrained racist attitudes of the day influenced national attitudes, earned the loyalty of African Americans, and provoked the ascendancy of racism as a potent political force that we still contend with today.
Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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