First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Chief Advocate for Civil Rights in FDR’s White House, Fights For Equal Treatment of Black Musicians

She insists on implementation of FDR’s executive order banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work

Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, having held the post from March 1933 to April 1945. Though widely respected in her later years, during her time in the White House she was very controversial, mainly for her outspoken advocacy for civil rights, labor unions, and the poor....

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First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Chief Advocate for Civil Rights in FDR’s White House, Fights For Equal Treatment of Black Musicians

She insists on implementation of FDR’s executive order banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work

Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, having held the post from March 1933 to April 1945. Though widely respected in her later years, during her time in the White House she was very controversial, mainly for her outspoken advocacy for civil rights, labor unions, and the poor. During her husband’s administration, despite the President’s need to placate Southern sentiment and Southerners in Congress, she was an important connection to the African-American population. For example, after a review of New Deal programs in Southern states, she concluded that New Deal programs were operating in a way that discriminated against African-Americans, who received a disproportionately small share of relief moneys. Eleanor became the foremost advocate in the Roosevelt White House for justice for all, and for insisting that benefits be equally extended to Americans of all races.

Eleanor also broke with tradition by inviting hundreds of African-American guests to the White House. In this she emulated her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, who had to great controversy invited the first black – Booker T. Washington – for dinner. When the black singer Marian Anderson was denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939, Eleanor resigned from the group in protest and helped arrange another concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt later presented Anderson to the King and Queen of the United Kingdom after Anderson performed at a White House dinner.

James Petrillo was the prominent leader of the American Federation of Musicians, a trade union of professional musicians in the United States and Canada. The round-faced, bespectacled Petrillo dominated the union with absolute authority. His most famous actions were banning all commercial recordings by union members from 1942–1944 and again in 1948 to pressure record companies to give better royalty deals to musicians; these were called the Petrillo Bans.

James Lawrence “Larry” Fly was a lawyer who rose to note as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and, later, director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He helped inaugurate standards for commercial broadcasting.

John Henry Hammond was a record producer, civil rights activist, and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s. He worked tirelessly his entire career for an integrated music world. As he explained in his memoirs, “I heard no color line in the music…. To bring recognition to the negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.” His pre-occupation with social issues was to continue, and in 1941 he was one of the founders of the Council on African Affairs along with Paul Robeson and W.E.B Du Bois.

In July of 1942 Hammond met with Eleanor Roosevelt to discuss the discrimination present in the Musician’s Union and unequal treatment of black musicians. At this time, it was the rule in radio that Negro artists could not be introduced in any commercial network show with the appellation of Mr., Mrs., or Miss preceding his or her name. That rule applied even to performers of Marian Anderson’s stature. As a result, Negro artists at the time were seldom heard on the radio.

After that meeting The First Lady sat down and wrote this letter expressing disgust for the undemocratic labor practices of the Musician’s Union and advocating for equal treatment of black musicians. Typed letter signed, on embossed White House letterhead, July 13, 1942, to Lawrence Cramer, executive secretary of the Committee on Fair Employment Practice, pushing back against racial discrimination. The committee was created in 1941 to implement FDR’s executive order banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work.

“Mr. John Hammond, Jr., of 178 Sullivan Street, New York City, came to see me on Thursday. He thinks conditions in the Musicians’ Union, of which Mr. Petrillo is the head, have been brought to your attention.

“I understand you are going to take some kind of action and I hope you will push it through, because that union is completely controlled by Mr. Petrillo and is the most undemocratic union in our country. I think to make them conform to the President’s Fair Practices Act would be a very good thing.

“Have you any idea how Mr. Fly of the Federal Communication Commission feels on the subject of discrimination against Negro artists? If he were sympathetic, Mr. Hammond’s group would like to write him a letter about their efforts to get the colored artists a chance on the radio now and then.”

Despite Mrs. Roosevelt’s efforts, it was not until 1958 that Petrillo was ousted from his role as union president, and it was over the issue of segregation. It was becoming a more popular idea that the Local 10 (white musicians union) and Local 208 (black musicians union) would merge. He opposed this, which contributed to his dethroning.

 

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