First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an advocate for civil rights and an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King from his Montgomery bus boycott days until her death six years later. King called Mrs. Roosevelt “perhaps the greatest woman [of] our time,” praising “the courage she displayed in taking sides on matters considered controversial” and her “unswerving dedication to high principle and purpose” (King, “Epitaph for Mrs. FDR”).
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on 11 October 1884. Although born into a privileged family, she was orphaned when she was 10 years old and was raised by her maternal grandmother. Sent to school in England at age 15, she learned a sense of public service that compelled her to work in New York City settlements when she returned in 1902. She married her distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1905 and initially devoted her time to childrearing and supporting her husband’s work. In 1920 Roosevelt began working on efforts to expand women’s political and economic opportunities. After her husband became president of the United States in 1933, Roosevelt began to hold weekly women-only press conferences and started a syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” which was published for nearly three decades.
As first lady, Roosevelt championed many social justice causes. In the 1930s she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), pressuring her husband to pass anti-lynching laws, and gave up her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization denied black singer Marian Anderson the right to use their segregated concert hall. She was present at the founding meeting of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in 1938, and defied Bull Connor’s orders when she sat in the aisle rather than submit to segregated seating in the Birmingham, Alabama, auditorium. She advocated against the poll tax and, as World War II began, campaigned to end racial discrimination in the armed forces. Following her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt joined the board of directors of both the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. That same year, President Harry S. Truman appointed her one of five delegates to the first United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Roosevelt became the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and was critical to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Roosevelt met Montgomery NAACP activists Rosa Parks and E. D. Nixon during the Montgomery bus boycott and also sent King a telegram inviting him to meet with her. She wrote about the bus boycott in her column, saying, “There must be great pride, not only among the Negroes but among white people all over the country, in the remarkable restraint and courage shown by the Negroes in their struggle for their rights in Montgomery, Ala., and other places in the South.” King’s “insistence that there be no hatred in this struggle,” in Roosevelt’s view, was “almost more than human beings can achieve” (Roosevelt, 22 March 1957).
For the next several years, Roosevelt and King enjoyed frequent correspondence. When King was arrested for perjury on his income taxes in February 1960, Roosevelt joined the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. Several months later, in October 1960, King was again arrested for his participation in a sit-in in downtown Atlanta. Of King’s arrest Roosevelt wrote: “The people of the world will condemn—not Georgia, unfortunately—the United States for treating as a criminal a man who is looked upon with respect” (Roosevelt, 28 October 1960). In her column she continued to write in support of the sit-ins, commending the students’ “determination to do away with inequality between races and to have real democracy in the United States” (Roosevelt, 6 February 1961). King expressed his appreciation, writing: “Once again, for all you have done, and I’m sure will continue to do to help extend the fruits of Democracy to our southern brothers, please accept my deep and lasting gratitude” (Papers 5:517).
Roosevelt’s health began to decline in the fall of 1962. In September, she invited King to be a guest on the first episode of her new television series, “The American Experience,” which would focus on civil rights. However, she entered the hospital just before it was scheduled to be taped. Roosevelt died on 7 November 1962. King wrote her family a condolence telegram, reflecting: “Her life was one of the bright interludes in the troubled history of mankind” (King, 8 November 1962).
Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” in Papers 5:382.
King, “Epitaph for Mrs. FDR,” New York Amsterdam News, 24 November 1962.
King to Roosevelt, 6 October 1960, in Papers 5:516–517.
King to Roosevelt Family, 8 November 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
Roosevelt, “My Day,” 22 March 1957, ERP-NHyF.
Roosevelt, “My Day,” 28 October 1960, ERP-NHyF.
Roosevelt, “My Day,” 6 February 1961, ERP-NHyF.
Roosevelt to King, 17 October 1956, in Papers 3:400.