Eleanor Roosevelt on Lynching

Lynching was undoubtedly the most terrible crime perpetrated by white supremacists against African Americans. From the late nineteenth century through the World War I years, hundreds of blacks were lynched in the South for a variety of alleged crimes, the most heinous of which was the rape of white women. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations tried unsuccessfully for many years to get a federal antilynching law passed. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes (1874-1952), a one-time president of the NAACP’s Chicago chapter, were supportive of the organization’s efforts, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) did not share their enthusiasm and believed that pressing for the NAACP’s demands would endanger congressional support for his New Deal programs. In her March 1936 letter to Walter Francis White (1893-1955), who served as NAACP executive secretary (later director) from 1931 to 1955, Mrs. Roosevelt stated some of the arguments that were used by the president and others against passage of an antilynching bill. It is clear from this “personal and confidential” letter that Mrs. Roosevelt was searching for a tactful means for aiding the anti-lynching cause herself, and she suggested to White various methods for winning the goodwill of members of Congress.

Question for consideration:
1. It has often been said that Eleanor Roosevelt was the conscience of the Roosevelt administration. Exlain whether this letter exemplify that view.
2. Who was Walter White?

From a letter by Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White detailing the First Lady’s lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings
19 March 1936.
(National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records)

My dear Mr. White:

Before I received your letter today I had been in to the President, talking to him about your letter enclosing that of the Attorney General. I told him that it seemed rather terrible that one could get nothing done and that I did not blame you in the least for feeling there was no interest in this very serious question. I asked him if there were any possibility of getting even one step taken, and he said the difficulty is that it is unconstitutional apparently for the Federal Government to step in in the lynching situation. the Government has only been allowed to do anything about kidnapping because of its interstate aspect, and even that has not as yet been appealed so they are not sure that it will be declared constitutional.

The president feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect. I will talk to him again about the Van Nuys resolution and will try to talk also to Senator Byrnes and get his point of view. I am deeply troubled about the whole situation as it seems to be a terrible thing to stand by and let it continue and feel that one cannot speak out as to his feeling. i think your next step would be to talk to the more prominent members of the Senate.

Very Sincerely yours,
Eleanor Roosevelt

Links for more information:
Background information regarding this letter
The National Park Service Website for the Eleanor Roosevelt Historical Site in New York, (The only National Historical Site dedicated to a first lady!)
The Establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission

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