Leading in an Enlightened Way

I just noticed it this past year. In many of the funerals at which I officiated, the person who died had made his or her way to Detroit during World War 2 to find employment in factories. Securing a job in wartime wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding housing, public transportation and child care.

In just two years in the early 1940’s, Detroit experienced phenomenal growth. Added to the 2.5 million people already living in Detroit were 500,000 more men, women and children, 150,000 of whom were black. Blacks and whites competed for housing, jobs and transportation, and trailer camps were everywhere. The cauldron was simmering.


The issue of racial justice was a gradual awakening for Eleanor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Eleanor inspected New Deal programs in the 1930’s, she discovered that blacks were discriminated against everywhere. In particular, The National Recovery Act, intended to establish codes of fair practices for labor, nevertheless allowed blacks to be forced to accept less money for the same work than whites or risk replacement. Discrimination was rampant in labor until President Roosevelt signed an order in 1935 barring discrimination in the Works Progress Administration.

Eleanor was always a friend to blacks, offering hope and supporting anti-lynching bills. Whereas FDR was more politically cautious, needing the support of the south in order to keep the country together, he would say more than once about Eleanor’s activities, “Well, that’s my wife. I can’t do anything about her.” Blacks, who had traditionally voted Republican, began voting Democratic in 1936.

In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in dramatic fashion from the Daughters of the American Revolution after singer Marian Anderson was barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. because she was black. In a letter dated February 26, 1939, to the DAR president general, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

From the beginning of World War 2, African-Americans struggled for the right to fight alongside white soldiers. That struggle was especially fierce in the Navy because of the close quarters in which blacks and whites lived on ships and submarines. African-Americans were allowed to enlist in the armed forces but were often restricted to lesser jobs.

Meanwhile, discrimination in the defense industry came to a head in the summer of 1941 when certain companies refused to hire blacks. Blacks threatened to march on Washington to abolish workplace discrimination and were supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, who gave them hope. Afraid of such a march, FDR finally agreed to a meeting with two civil rights leaders, A. Philip Randolph and Walter White. This was followed by an executive order issued on June 25, 1941, guaranteeing “full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries without discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.” A Fair Employment Practices Commission was set up to insure compliance, and the response of black community was overwhelmingly positive.

When the Navy only allowed blacks to be messmen, FDR’s direct reply to the Navy was that 10% of Americans were black. White officers, however, felt that abandoning segregation would adversely affect morale and might result in serious conflict. Eleanor Roosevelt did not back down on human rights, though, and was a strong advocate for integration. While experience and time proved that people could and did overcome their prejudice by working together, some white southerners excoriated Mrs. Roosevelt, making her the scapegoat for integration. They claimed she was the most dangerous person in the United States.

20150720-3The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name for the first African-American military pilots in the United States Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, were subjected to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Some of the pilots were never called up to serve in combat, including the 99th Pursuit Squadron, which was ready to fly by September 1942. It was only after Eleanor intervened that the 99th flew 1,578 missions over North Africa, Italy and Germany without losing a bomber to an enemy pilot.

At the height of the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive near the end of the war, the army called Negro units to fight alongside whites for the first time. Most black units had been in the rear guard for the entirely of the war, despite their requests to fight on the front line. The experience of fighting together made a huge difference in the improvement of race relations.

Meanwhile, racial tensions on the home front reached the boiling point in Detroit, which was affectionately known as the “arsenal of democracy.” Housing was scarce, and in 1941 blacks were only allowed to use one of the many public housing facilities. In addition, blacks often had to pay twice as much as whites for poor living conditions. In 1943 the Sojourner Truth housing project opened for African-Americans, only to elicit intense protests from whites who felt that blacks did not deserve such quality housing.

The government subsequently gave the housing project back to whites. However, after Eleanor Roosevelt criticized the government for destroying the morale of blacks, who were an integral part of the war effort, others followed suit and the housing project was returned to the black community.

Tensions increased. White workers in defense factories protested the promotion of three black workers and thousands of white Packard plant employees walked off the job, with one worker saying, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work beside a N***** on the assembly line.” In response, blacks in Detroit started a “bumping” campaign, where they would intentionally bump into white people on sidewalks and refuse to move out of the way.

The tipping point was reached on June 20 when a riot broke out in the late evening at Belle Isle, a popular, integrated amusement park. Between June 20 and 22, thirty-four people were killed (nine white residents and twenty-five black residents, seventeen of which were killed by white policemen). 433 people were wounded, 1,800 were arrested, and property valued at $2 million was destroyed, ($27.5 million in 2015 US dollars).

Criticism was swift and vehement, and Mrs. Roosevelt became the scapegoat. A Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper blamed the race riots directly on Eleanor Roosevelt, writing, “BLOOD ON HER HANDS: It is blood on your hands, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. More than any other person, you are morally responsible for those race riots in Detroit.” In response to the criticism, Eleanor said, “I suppose when one is being forced to realize that an unwelcome change is coming, one must blame someone or something.”

Not wanting to alienate southern lawmakers, President Roosevelt was silent and liberals were disappointed. However, in a subsequent fireside chat in 1943, Roosevelt attempted to reassure the American people by reminding them that they were all interrelated – management and laborers – and that everyone was needed in the war effort, both at home and abroad.

Civil rights remained the greatest unfinished business of World War 2, but a watershed had been crossed as white and black soldiers learned to fight together and white and black workers learned to support the war effort together. During the war, the number of black military officers increased from a mere five to seven thousand. In fact, more was accomplished in civil rights in the five years between 1940 and 1945 than in the seventy-five years between the Civil War and World War 2. Little of that progress would have been made without the enlightened leadership of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I am in Charleston, South Carolina as I write this blog, seventy years since the end of World War 2. How are we doing? This last year has revealed in so many ways that our God-given call to justice and equality for all people in our country has yet to be fully realized. Yes, we’ve made great strides. As I walk by Mother 20150720-1Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, dozens of flower bouquets, signs and messages of condolence line the sidewalk, and people still gather to pay their respects to the families of those who died. At the same time Ku Klux Klan members demonstrate outside the state house building in Columbia, protesting the removal of the confederate flag from the state house grounds.

We are reminded that the journey is still not over, not until that day when liberty and justice for all become more than simply words that trip off our tongue when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Will we be part of the problem or the solution? Will we be out in front or lag behind? I thank God for all those who lead in an enlightened way, encouraging us to live up to the ideals upon which our country was founded and guaranteeing to every person in our world the right to become all that God created him or her to be.


P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be on Monday, August 3.

Eleanor on a $10 Bill?

One of the last bastions of male domination in America is our paper currency. Each of the eleven denominations in circulation, from the one-dollar bill to the ten-thousand-dollar bill, features the picture of a male. Two women, Barbara Ortiz Howard and Susan Ades Stone, recently decided to mount a campaign, Women on 20s, to put a woman’s face on the $20 bill by 2020, the centennial of women’s suffrage. Andrew Jackson, they decided, was expendable.

Earlier this year, people cast ballots in an unofficial “Women on 20s” campaign. More than 350,000 people voted, and those receiving the most ballots to unseat Andrew Jackson were Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, in that order.

Consequently, the Treasury Department announced in June that they will be unveiling the face of a woman on a redesigned $10 bill by the 2020 anniversary, replacing Alexander Hamilton. They also said that the bill should feature one “who was a champion for our inclusive democracy.” There are lots of great options for women on our currency, and, like many others, among those at the top of my list is Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most admired and influential women in American history.

20150713-1Eleanor was only nineteen years old when she became engaged to her twenty-two year old fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor’s childhood was sad, with her father battling addictions to alcohol and morphine and both parents dying young. She was not interested in normal things wealthy families did, such as attending debutante balls or wearing fine clothing. Eleanor had a very sensitive, strong moral character, was compelled to make a difference and use her position as a catalyst for positive change.

From the beginning of FDR’s political involvement, Eleanor was a great advocate and help for Franklin, especially after he contracted polio. When FDR was elected President in 1932, Eleanor realized that she was not destined to be a typical President’s wife, remaining behind to take care of the White House and host events. Rather, she was determined to find a role where she could make a difference for ordinary Americans.

Together, Eleanor and Franklin decided that it was critical for the president to know what was going on around the country. Because of FDR’s physical challenges, Eleanor was the one who could best do that for him. Feeling irrelevant in the face of the impending Nazi threat and knowing that FDR’s primary attention was directed toward the war, Eleanor decided that her gifts would best be used to focus on the needs of the home front and champion inclusive democracy. Little did anyone know in 1932 that in a few short years Eleanor would become the most famous woman in America.

At the beginning of her political life as FDR’s wife, Eleanor inspected New Deal programs and became involved in the abolition of child labor, raising the minimum wage and seeking protections for women workers. As World War 2 approached, Eleanor focused her passions in four areas: Jewish refugees from Europe, Japanese internment camps, the role of women in the war effort and equal rights for African-Americans.

Jewish Refugees

At the beginning of the war, the full extent of Jewish atrocities was not well known, nor did U.S. newspapers print much about mass Jewish killings in Europe. However, early on, Eleanor lobbied on behalf of child victims and was intent on opening the United States to refugee children from Europe. She established the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, finding homes and attempting to eliminate red tape by calling them temporary visitors. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s efforts were thwarted by the isolationist stance of the U.S. in the early 1940’s and the reluctance of Americans to assist Jewish refugees in practical ways, partly because of anti-Semitism.

The clergy were silent, and Congress did not seem concerned. FDR had heard that the Germans were intent on exterminating all Jews in Europe, but he felt that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war as soon as possible. In her later years, Eleanor, who so much wanted to champion inclusive democracy, acknowledged that the failure to admit more Jewish refugees was the greatest regret of her life.

Japanese Internment Camps

The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor not only occasioned America’s entrance into the war, it marked the beginning of one of the worst human rights violations in American history. In the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, many Americans thought that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry must be spies for the Japanese government. Over 127,000 Japanese-American citizens were displaced and forced into incarceration camps in the interior of the country during World War 2 because of anti-Japanese paranoia.

As the champion of inclusive democracy, Eleanor listened to Japanese doctors, engineers and farmers who said, “We’re on your side! Why are you doing this?” Horrified by this overt display of racism, she wondered how the United States could teach principles of democracy to people whose rights were being taken away. Eleanor’s pleas to FDR and Congress fell mostly on deaf ears. However, by the end of 1943, one third of the evacuees were allowed to leave the internment camps.

20150713-2The Role of Women in the War Effort

Eleanor was tireless in her advocacy for women entering the work force during World War 2 and receiving fair compensation. Because millions of American young men were fighting in the war, it was necessary for women to work in traditionally male jobs. Rosie the Riveter became the cultural icon for women’s economic power, as women earned much more money as riveters, welders, blue print readers and inspectors than they would in traditionally female jobs such as maids.

Eleanor, the champion of inclusive democracy, was especially concerned about the lack of day care for the three million women who were added to the work force between 1940 and 1942, 33% of whom had children under the age of fourteen. She called on private industry to consider day care centers as important as having a cafeteria in a factory. As a result, President Roosevelt approved the first government-sponsored child care center in the summer of 1942.

Equal Rights for Africa-Americans (check out next week’s blog)

No one disputes the fact that President Roosevelt’s success and popularity during World War 2 was possible only because of Eleanor’s ability to be the face of his presidency and personally connect with the American people. Why did Eleanor become a highly respected leader in her own right and the most admired woman in America?


Steadiness of Purpose

  • Eleanor demonstrated her innate sense of integrity, compassion and justice for all people by her presence as well as her words. Eleanor traveled the country incessantly and was rarely home at the White House. Because she was an American mother with four sons in the military herself, Eleanor made a positive impact on everyone she met.
  • As the hands and voice of FDR, Eleanor said the right things, always expressed gratitude and was good-natured about trying new experiences. She visited assembly lines, child care centers and army bases. She personally encouraged the troops in England and the South Pacific and even climbed into every position in the B-52 bomber so that she knew what it felt like to be in combat.


  • Eleanor was most widely known for her syndicated daily column, My Day, which appeared in 135 newspapers. “Every soldier I see is a friend from home,” she wrote in her folksy and immensely popular column, similar to a blog today. By 1941 Eleanor was among the highest paid lecturers in the country at $1,000 a day.
  • Eleanor insisted that only women reporters could attend her press conferences, which meant that the newspapers were forced to hire women reporters.

Work Ethic and Organization

  • Eleanor believed in surrounding herself with people who complemented her gifts.
  • Eleanor periodically reinvented herself, with FDR’s approval, to various positions that were perfectly suited to her skills and interests.
  • Eleanor had a serious personality. Unlike her husband, she did not like cocktail party conversation, never quit working and was often taking care of correspondence far into the night.

Despite their differences, Eleanor always supported FDR’s decisions. In truth, they complemented and strengthened each other. US News gave Eleanor a high compliment in 1941 by writing, “She backs the President’s most courageous self.”

Eleanor Roosevelt never held an elected office. Still, she was subject to more praise and criticism than any other woman in American history. By leading from the “second chair,” Eleanor’s insistence on being a champion of inclusive democracy changed the course of our country and world. Eleanor on a $10 bill? What do you think?


No Ordinary Time

“This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals. No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability.” So spoke Eleanor Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention in 1940 as her husband Franklin was about to be nominated to a third term as President of the United States.


2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. Americans celebrated V-E Day on May 8, 1945 to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Three months later, on August 6, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and followed it with another bomb three days later, directed at Nagasaki. The formal surrender of Japan came on September 2. 2015 also marks the 70th anniversary of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12. Roosevelt is the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms, although he died just months after his fourth inauguration.

My father, father-in-law and mother-in-law all served in World War 2, yet they rarely initiated conversation about their service until recent years. Wanting to learn more about this most transformative era in U.S. history, I decided to observe the 70th anniversary by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller, No Ordinary Time; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. My next three blogs will focus on leadership lessons from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Eleanor Roosevelt and progress made in race relations between 1940 and 1945.

FDR was born in 1882 into a wealthy family and entered politics as a young man, having been elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 and appointed as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. A defining moment in FDR’s political rise was his diagnosis of polio in 1921 at the age of 39. For several years his main focus shifted from politics to physical recovery, but Roosevelt never regained full use of his legs and was wheelchair-bound the rest of this life.


FDR was first elected president in 1931. As Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and announced his goal of exterminating Jews from Europe, Roosevelt’s focus turned outward of necessity. How did FDR boldly and courageously lead the United States during the Depression and the New Deal and then through isolationism to war with both Japan and Germany?

FDR was a master communicator. He had the unique ability to inspire, touch, encourage and challenge the American people to live up to their destiny to preserve freedom in our world. FDR would deliver stirring speeches, but his most effective way of reaching ordinary citizens was through Fireside Chats. Because of his disability, FDR was not able to travel easily, but he would periodically chat informally with the American people by radio. A huge percentage of the population tuned in late at night, sitting by their radio at the kitchen table.

FDR had the gift of being able to paint a picture of the future, with freedom and the flag as a rallying point. Roosevelt could see what others could not and invited his citizens to join him in the journey. FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech is especially notable for his vision of a country with four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

FDR led from the front, knowing that his bold decisions would result in the deaths of many soldiers in order for the war to be won. Roosevelt relied on his advisors, but the ultimate decisions were his. It was a lonely place to be, but FDR was never afraid to run risks for the sake of his convictions. He also knew that he would never please everyone and would face intense criticism at times.

FDR had a spiritual maturity that resulted in part because of intense suffering associated with his physical disability. Roosevelt could connect with people. He was cheerful and hopeful and could inspire others to be their best selves as well as have faith and trust in him. One of FDR’s greatest gifts was his confidence that with enough energy and spirit humans could do anything, even overcome the great evil of the Nazi regime.

Don’t mess with ministers!
In early 1942 pleasure driving came to an end because rubber (tires) and gas were needed for the war effort. However, physicians, war workers, public officials and others rendering essential services were allowed to have a new set of tires and were exempt from gas rationing. After an outcry that clergy were not included, Roosevelt immediate granted them an exemption.

FDR was instrumental in leading the U.S. to rapidly and imaginatively retool for war production. Instead of taking eighteen months to build a new airplane, they retooled auto plants and rethought how to make planes more quickly. Between 1940 and 1945, the U.S. produced 300,000 warplanes, 107,351 tanks, 2 million trucks, 87,620 warships, 5,475 cargo ships, 20 million rifles, machine guns and pistols and 44 billion rounds of ammunition.

Embracing his Disability
FDR realized that by staying in his office he would lose track of the world and limit his accessibility to the American people. Eleanor, then, became his hands, feet, heart and presence around the country. FDR insisted on hiding his disability and never appeared in public in a wheelchair until near the end of his life. He was never to be photographed handicapped in public and was always pictured standing behind a podium, seated or leaning on the arm of a colleague. The veil of silence was accepted, and when people did catch glimpses of Roosevelt’s vulnerability, it only increased the power and charm of his personality.

Rest and Renewal
Roosevelt’s health and the intensity of his presidency dictated intentional rest and renewal of his spirit. Even in the worst of times, FDR made it a priority to travel regularly to the healing waters of Warm Springs, Georgia or to his home in Hyde Park, New York, where he slept, swam and enjoyed stamp collecting. During his time away, Roosevelt was able to regain perspective and realize how unimportant the little things were in the face of a war that threatened the entire world. Deep rest and the presence of trusted confidantes, including Winston Churchill, contributed to his good spirits and gave Roosevelt renewed energy for the momentous decisions facing him. Through it all FDR remained “calm and serene, never impatient or irritable,” according to presidential assistant, William Hassett.


How did Roosevelt’s leadership help win the war?

  • FDR had an amazing sense of timing and brought an isolationist country along little by little.
  • FDR had an extraordinary ability to appraise public feeling, mobilize Americans, and unify the country by insisting that every American had an important role to play in the war.
  • FDR solicited different points of view and would even try out ideas on reporters.
  • FDR was able to form a coherent pattern from many pieces.
  • FDR always remained calm and unmoved.
  • Long before the war was over, FDR had a vision of and prepared for the future of America where veterans were cared for, full employment continued, the role of business was nurtured and a new United Nations would work for peace around the world.

Seventy years ago was no ordinary time. But today is no ordinary time, either, in the church and in our world. Boldness and vision, connecting with people, offering hope, a non-anxious presence, taking one step at a time: that’s how we move toward the kingdom of God. What can we learn from Franklin Delano Roosevelt about leadership as we answer God’s call today?