On April 18, 1942, in the midst of World War II, the Chicago Defender published a story about a speech Eleanor Roosevelt gave at the Hampton Institute that called for equality for all Americans. During her husband’s presidency, Eleanor didn’t waste the publicity that came with being first lady and was known for being very outspoken on her beliefs about social and political issues. During this particular speech she expressed the need for equal opportunity for education, occupation, and roles in government for people of all races. She also called for the need for all to be equal in the eyes of the law.
Eleanor Roosevelt continued by saying that it is the duty of any democracy to ensure these rights to its citizens, and by neglecting people of color, the U.S. was failing as a democracy. She also criticized the way that the United States had treated people of other races not only within the nation, but in other ones as well. Throughout the past years and in history, the U.S. seemed to believe that white people were on an upper-tier of race and had mistreated others because of it. Roosevelt then pointed out the irony that, while the country held its race to be higher than others, it was currently fighting a war allied with the Chinese and Filipinos. She is directly quoted as saying, “We are in a world growing closer daily. If we are going to live in peace, we must have respect for one another.”
In modern times, her speech may seem obvious and a little overplayed, but it had great significance at the time. At the time, racism was much more prominent of an issue and simultaneously a very often ignored issue. This was one of the first times someone in a position of great power and reputation had spoken out on the issue in such a blunt and honest way. It was a huge step forward for anyone of color in the United States, especially black people, who at that time were facing extreme systemic racism. Even if this speech didn’t immediately help with combating oppression, it was at least a token of hope for anyone who faced segregation, Jim Crow laws, and prejudice in their everyday lives.
Later in her speech, Eleanor Roosevelt continues to talk about a sort of rebuilding of the U.S. after the end of the war, not a physical reconstruction, but a reform in actions. She said that the war was necessary to win because it was a clear battle between democracy and totalitarianism, and even though the democracy the U.S. currently had was far from perfect, it was important to try to fix it to preserve the nation. Another important note of her speech was that when the soldiers came home from the war, they would be detached from society, and it was important to set an example of how to act in the rebuilt society when they rejoined. Roosevelt stressed the importance of acting as a single country united rather than a country that only valued white people and forgot everyone else.