AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed writer, Vernon Jarrett, in 1999. Below, read excerpts from his interview.
Being African American in the 1930s
Q: What was it like to be African American in the late 30s?
A: Well, I was rather young in the late 30s, and I never even thought in terms of integration. I was consumed in one day having an opportunity to vote. And I was always aware of the possibility, living in the South, that I could irritate certain white people and could get lynched. It was almost a defensive syndrome where you were always protecting yourself and at the same time trying to advance as best you could. If someone had told me, in the 30s, that one day you will be on a white TV station (of course, TV was out; we weren't even thinking about it), but that one day you would be an editorial board member of a major white newspaper in Chicago, I would have thought they were ridiculous, trying to pull my leg or tease. It didn't even come across my mind.
Q: When you were growing up, you really thought, if you put a foot wrong, you could get lynched?
A: I can remember reading consistently about lynch mobs. Every year, Tuskegee Institute kept a record of the number of black people being lynched. And it was up and down. I don't recall a single year that at least from 20 back down to the lowest, I think, happened during World War II, when it was down to six.
Now, when I say "lynching," I don't mean somebody just shooting a black person, or two or three men grabbing somebody and taking him off somewhere like you see in the cowboy movies, and hanging persons. I mean mutilations, burning people alive, white people dressing up to go to the lynching, a lynching as a testimony of one's Americanness, one's being a Christian. After all, the Ku Klux Klan's symbol is the cross on fire, the way they had burned black people.
And now I can understand how my father used to sit in church very silently and weep, and the tears would run down his eyes when that certain song they would sing, that Harry Belafonte recorded years, years later, called "Calvary," being on the cross, being always threatened with an execution. And "Were you there when they crucified my Lord," my father used to just sit there with his eyes closed in church when somebody would sing that. The idea of imminent crucifixion was there, almost a part of your subconscious makeup.
The Marian Anderson Concert
Q: Tell me about the Marian Anderson concert, its importance, and Mrs. Roosevelt's role in it.
A: I'm not too sure that America realized what that concert symbolized, because it struck at the very depths of racism in America. No one had asked Marian Anderson to integrate anything. The Howard University's music department usually sponsored someone of renown every year, and in 1939 they had chosen Marian Anderson, who had been hailed by none other by Arturo Toscanini as being one voice in a million.
And so they could no longer go to the small high school auditorium, and they asked Washington DC's school board to let them have the Central High auditorium, which was white, because it was bigger. They were rejected. A petition was drawn up, and they finally decided to let them have the high school, but one time only. "We're not going to do this again." Now, this was a public high school, refusing to let one of the great voices of our time sing.
So someone thought of the idea of: Why not go to the DAR, its Constitution Hall, which would certainly be ample? The Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR, said no, because of her color. Mrs. Roosevelt was a member of the DAR. She became a columnist, I think with Scripps-Howard. And she wrote a column titled My Day. She denounced this act and said that she was resigning from the DAR. And then she and the great lawyer Charles Houston, and of course Walter White and some others met, and they decided something even more grandiose. They got together with Harold Ickes. I think he was one of the great advisors to President Franklin Roosevelt. And of course Chapman was one of the other advisors. And they decided to have a big expression of what America should be like at the Lincoln monument. And the idea was accepted. Franklin Roosevelt, because of requests from Mrs. Roosevelt and from Chapman, decided to go for broke. Upwards of 75,000 stood there on an Easter Sunday morning and cheered as this great woman sang. Now, everybody knew that Mrs. Roosevelt was behind this. Now, she didn't do it alone, but she was behind it. And that helped set her off.
A Friend in the White House
Q: So you felt suddenly that you had a friend in the White House?
A: Oh yes. Over a period of time, most black people were struck with the genuineness and the feeling that she was for real, not only just her statements, not only the so-called sympathetic statements. Her statements were empathetic rather than sympathetic. She showed empathy. And she appeared to be thoroughly convinced and progressively, as time went on, that America could not live up to its promise of being a democracy unless it did something about the racial problem in this country. I think she was thoroughly convinced of that. Now, maybe when she first got in, she wasn't, because part of her heritage is southern. One author suggested that she might have used words like "pickaninny" and "darky" in describing black folk. But once she began to see what the black experience was like, she changed. And did she change! You had to put her into context of her time, in order to really appreciate this woman. I didn't appreciate her as much as I should have then. But when I look back on what it must have required for her to take the positions she did, you had to assume that she was truly a committed woman, not only in her words but where she placed her body.
You know, she was on several committees organized to dramatically change the climate pertaining black people. She helped organize some in the South. Many people who saw it thought it was most remarkable when she attended an anniversary meeting for Bethune-Cookman College. And of course, Mary McLeod Bethune was there, her close friend. The way they greeted each other as they met on stage, you saw a genuine warmth. There was no holding back. And when Mrs. Bethune spoke and her voice became hoarse and sort of crackled, the President's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, got up and poured her a glass of water and handed it to her. That was a gesture that said more than all the speeches she ever made.
Racism in the U.S. during World War II
Q: The war must have made racism here even more glaring for blacks.
A: World War II exposed a great contradiction in American life. Here you were fighting Hitler, the world's premier ideologue of racism. And in your own country, if you were a black soldier in a uniform, you had to be very cautious about your life. They were still lynching African Americans, hanging them up, setting them on fire, shooting them like they were garbage and dogs, during World War II. You couldn't even get an anti-lynching bill passed during World War II. Franklin Roosevelt, the new great emancipator, never made a speech attacking lynchings, the way he should have. He might have mentioned in passing, but not directly. Roosevelt never made an outstanding reference to black people in any kind of pro-black speech, as did later Lyndon Baines Johnson. He never addressed the NAACP, as Truman did later. The tensions and the definitions of black and white were so sharply desperate that it wasn't advisable for him to ever do that.
FDR's Popularity Amongst Blacks
Q: Was Mrs. Roosevelt responsible for much of his popularity amongst blacks?
A: Mrs. Roosevelt became Franklin Roosevelt's secret weapon. Many people assumed that he felt correctly toward us but didn't consider it advisable -- his dependency on the solid South -- to state it. Many people assumed that he put her up to do it because he couldn't. Now, that was the assumption. But I think much of what she did, she acted on her own. And he simply used her as an excuse, as if to say, "You know, I can't control you. How many of you can control your wives? I don't have any control over her. This is Eleanor. That's the way she is, and I can't do anything about it. I'm stuck with her." You know, in so many words. But many of us felt that this was his subtle way of expressing his personal feelings also. But Roosevelt never made any speeches to irritate the white South.
Detroit Race Riots
I presume that the worst attacks on Eleanor Roosevelt came in the wake of the Detroit riots, beginning in 1942 and culminating in that awful scene in 1943. Eleanor Roosevelt had urged the introduction of blacks into the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in Detroit. Now incidentally, the housing project was named after an African American heroine, Sojourner Truth. Well, they went about doing it. There was great opposition, keep in mind, great opposition within Franklin Roosevelt's Administration. All of this was not just outside. It reached a point that, at one time, she referred to one of his aides as a fascist. That's how strongly she felt. And they were always advisors cautioning him about going too far. "Hold back."
For an example, it was so bad that he declined making a statement in praise of the Urban League, which was truly a moderate organization. He declined by advice of his tutors there, whoever was giving him advice on race, not to say too many nice things for an opening of the NAACP. And even an organization founded by none other than the great accommodationist Booker T. Washington, the National Negro Business League, he declined to even make a welcoming statement to that organization. This is how divided his advisory board was on what to do about black people.
So here is Eleanor Roosevelt urging the integration of a housing project, not in Birmingham or Montgomery, but in Detroit, Michigan. The Polish community staged an uprising, which tells you something about what goes on when immigrants come to America. One of the first indoctrinations you have is, to be a true American, regardless of what you ran from, is to be opposed to black people. So there was much resentment in a largely Polish community. And they held up the entree of blacks to Sojourner Truth. But finally, with protection, 200 families, I understand, did go in. In April of 1943, Belle Island exploded. That's the little island in the Detroit River. It was one of the worst. Thirty-four people were killed. Seventeen blacks killed by policemen alone. And what they did to each other is historic. It's one of the worst riots in the history of this country.
And of course, who did they blame? Eleanor Roosevelt's advocacy of blacks being brought into a public housing development in Detroit. And they laid it on her. They accused her of being a communist. They accused her of everything. They wanted the FBI to take action on her. And of course the FBI didn't need any encouragement under J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover, according to one researcher, said that Mrs. Roosevelt must have had Negro blood. ... But she didn't stop. This is the remarkable thing. This woman didn't stop. She defended herself. She continued to write her column. Scripps-Howard publishers urged all of its member newspapers to drop her column, My Day. And they all did, except one. But she didn't stop, because this woman evidently was convinced that she was doing the American thing. She was thinking about the future of her country.
Q: Describe the riots.
A: It was one of the worst. People unaware of what was going on would have been smashed out of cars and brutalized and killed. And the policemen were, by and large, in favor of the white mob. And then black people began to retaliate, attacking innocent white people. It was just brutal. I mean, massive. I think Roosevelt eventually had to send in about 5,000 troops. You had to federal troops brought in to quell this riot.
Lest we forget, this was why we were in a war with Hitler. This was April, 1943. And people were shouting the same remarks that Hitler was shouting about the Jews: "These inferiors. They don't belong here." People who just got here were saying we didn't belong here. And a woman with Mrs. Roosevelt's sensitivity had to be aware of what was going on. She stood her ground and didn't back up.
Eleanor's Commitment to African Americans
Q: Talk about Eleanor and the NAACP?
A: Just to be on the board of the NAACP, back then, it's not like being on the board of the NAACP in the 50s. NAACP was still considered a radical left-wing organization, which it was not. "Left-wing" then meant changing even minutely the racial equation in this country. See, when they wanted to integrate that housing development, the Sojourner Truth housing development in Detroit, they were not talking about racial mixing, getting married, and that sort of thing. Just: "We don't want you here. You're not supposed to be in our community. You ought to be glad you're living, to be in my country."
And of course, she addressed herself to that. She said, "How are you going to fight a war for democracy when people who were brought here against their will are denied access by people who came out of desperation?" See, the totality of all of these statements and where she placed her body, being there, told a great story that separated her from most Americans, white or black. Took a lot of guts for her to do this. The FBI was anti-Eleanor Roosevelt. Investigated her over and over. And she knew it. But she held her ground. I think this woman discovered something about herself that she didn't know. And the more she discovered herself, the more she became sensitized to what was happening to black people.
She expressed herself in an article in a new publication in the early 40s called Negro Digest, published by a young man named John H. Johnson, who took that publication's success and developed Ebony that we all know about, on what she would do if she were a Negro. And she had to concede that if she were black, she would experience great bitterness. She used the word "bitterness" over the treatment of her people and herself. And of course, after that, people attacked Negro Digest as a communist newspaper. That was the easiest way out, you know, to call somebody a communist. And the fact is she never withered except on occasions she would buckle a little bit. And it doesn't mean that she agreed with everything that A. Philip Randolph and Walter White and Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston and all the others did. She would differ with them, as you will learn later. She did have some differences about the March on Washington. But they were not strong differences.
And now you can give her credit, too much credit now. You can give her too much credit if you're not careful, by implying that she was the cause of the Negro movements of that time, the civil rights movements. This came from black people themselves. They didn't need an Eleanor Roosevelt to protest. And when she was a bit soft on certain issues, as on the March on Washington in 1941, they went right ahead. She didn't come out blatantly, openly, and say, "It shouldn't be. I'm against it." But she let it be known in private meetings.
For an example, there are those who suspected that maybe her husband had put her up to trying to kill the March on Washington in a meeting held with Mayor LaGuardia of New York, Walter White, and A. Philip Randolph, and of course Mrs. Roosevelt. They met in his office to try to calm down the March on Washington. And she had some opposition based on what could have been her sincere appraisals of that situation. She said, "You got all these white policemen here, and you're going to bring in 100,000 people. We don't know what could happen. In the middle of a war, you could have a great tragedy here. What would they do? Where would they stay?" She had some grave doubts about the feasibility of a March on Washington. But the fact that you had an A. Philip Randolph, who was intractable on that issue, he didn't wither a bit. And they forced President Roosevelt, her husband, to issue Executive Order 8802, the first executive order dealing with anything having to do with black people since the Civil War. But he did it. And that was one of the great, great victories scored during World War II for us.
Q: Brown v. Board of Education, in the 50s, wasn't implemented. She worked hard to implement it?
A: Eleanor Roosevelt, in the wake of Brown versus Board of Education, not only supported it; she was relentless. And she wanted everybody to know where she stood. She wanted it implemented. She didn't even want black people being too cautious about the implementation of that Supreme Court decision. She made it clear to everybody that she was supporting Daisy Bates, head of the local NAACP in Little Rock, and those youngsters. She was with them all the way. And I think shortly after that she made a statement to the effect that if you don't take a stand, you've got to leave the impression that you're cowardly. She used the word "cowardly", which meant that she had been growing firmer and firmer. She had a deep resentment, the more she heard of both Southern Senators and Congressmen who would just blatantly use the word "nigger," who blatantly and unnecessarily wanted to segregate people.
Q: What is Eleanor's legacy?
A: She has a legacy that would apply beyond just race relations. Here is a woman who did not object to the continual discovery of self, of what she was about. I don't think she knew that she would become the Eleanor Roosevelt that she did, simply by being the president's wife. I do think that she had a body of logic and facts and what have you in her mind about the way the world ought to be. There was just no way that she could have the treatment of black people conform with what the war was all about. There was just no way she could justify the grandiose statements made, you know, the four freedoms and all of the idealism that came out of World War II, and then just sit there and see black people treated like nothing, like they were sub-human beings. She just couldn't do it. For the same reason that she took action on the 38 Jews that had been turned back just because they didn't have a passport, and sent back into what amounted to be a concentration camp.
She took individual actions too, I think, not just on the broader issues. Like somebody about to be lynched, some of the local uprisings like the thing in Tennessee. She was on a committee there to take some action on the mistreatment of black war veterans. And remember, we were still lynching black people in this country, even in post-World-War-II America. Lynchings with impunity. Nobody going to jail. People confessing. She was around when Emmett Till was killed, the Chicago teenager in Mississippi. And she saw what happened, where the lynchers were heroes. There was no way in the world that an Eleanor Roosevelt could sit quietly by and see heroism be awarded to people who lunch folks willy-nilly. Just no way. And she recognized it, and evidently she came to terms with herself and said, "I'm going to take a stand all the way." She was taking stands, you know, right before she died.
I think that she left another message -- you might say a subtle message, a message by inference, to black America as well as white Americans. And that message would say: "Don't write off all white people; that most of us too are the victims of culture, prior training, misconceptions; that you do have white friends that you don't even know, and that you will have more in years to come, once the truth is out and there are enough courageous people to represent that truth." And I think you could give herself as a candid example, her presence, her willingness to sacrifice and to put pressure on a president who didn't need any more pressure. I think that is essentially a message that maybe she wanted black people to have: "Don't write off white people as being innately racist; that this can overcome; and that we shall overcome."
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