Today, we celebrate and honor and life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose impact on American civil rights and freedom is nearly unparalleled in our nation’s history. In the spirit of the four freedoms, Dr. King championed social, economic, and racial justice, and inspired generations of Americans to dream of a more inclusive and equal world. Yet he also had a deeper connection to the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt through his special relationship with another indefatigable advocate for human rights: Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a groundbreaking force in the struggle for American equality, endorsing the NAACP in 1934. Eleanor famously, though unsuccessfully, urged her husband to sign into law the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill, despite risks of alienating the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred African-American contralto Marian Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall, Eleanor resigned from the D.A.R., then helped to move Anderson’s performance to the Lincoln Memorial. Eleanor Roosevelt was the moral compass of the United States throughout FDR’s presidency and beyond.
Eleanor’s unwavering commitment to human freedom led to her natural support for the Civil Rights Movement. Her activism and opposition to segregation during the post-World War II era drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan and led to her investigation by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, she had developed close ties to Dr. King.
Eleanor and Dr. King maintained written correspondence throughout that period. Eleanor wrote Dr. King to voice her support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other MLK-led direct actions. In the midst of the 1958 crisis in Birmingham, during which African-American freedom fighters were beaten and jailed, Dr. King appealed to Eleanor, asking for aid and urging that her “action could save lives.” In the February 6, 1961 edition of Eleanor’s widely-read column “My Day,” the former first lady praised Dr. King as “a very moving speaker” with a “spiritual quality which has made him the leader of non-violence in this country.”
As Eleanor reached the end of her life in 1962, she became dismayed America’s lack of progress with regards to racial equality. After James Meredith was met with brutality when he attempted to enroll in the University of Mississippi, Eleanor invited Dr. King onto her television program to discuss racial violence, but the show was never filmed. Two days later, Eleanor entered the hospital, and on November 7th, 1962, she passed way, leaving behind a lifetime of work in the causes of justice and equality
Dr. King penned an epitaph for the late first lady upon her passing, heralding Eleanor as “perhaps the greatest woman of our time,” and writing that “the quality of her living extend[ed] beyond space and time.” Dr. King noted her early support for the United Nations, her push for global human rights, and her advocacy against Jim Crow, praising her as a “symbol of world citizenship.”
Dr. King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968 in a tragic moment that marked a shift in the American Civil Rights Movement. As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy today, it is imperative that we work towards the fulfillment of his dream. As citizens of the world ourselves, we must continue the fight for the four freedoms and global human rights so tirelessly waged by both Dr. King and Eleanor Roosevelt.