SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Eleanor Roosevelt Made Things Happen

Article excerpt

I've noticed that a documentary on Eleanor Roosevelt for Public Television's "The American Experience" is getting some promotion on APT.

Although the "vibrant life of one of the century's most influential women," as the promotional materials puts it, is bound to be fascinating -- biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of two magnificent volumes on Eleanor, is among the talking heads -- viewership of the biography probably won't rise to expectations in Alabama.

I remember vividly as a boy hearing a barbershop discussion on Franklin Roosevelt's presidential years. There was widespread agreement that Franklin was a great president -- after all, he provided jobs for some of the men in the discussion -- but to a person, they simply hated Eleanor. Couldn't stand her. Couldn't understand why Franklin, who seemed so smart, so sane, so magnificent, would marry someone like Eleanor.

According to Cook and others, Franklin ultimately didn't understand it either. After Eleanor found out about his affairs with other women, she and Franklin essentially lived separate lives.

A strong current of hatred for Eleanor persists in parts of our state. But why? She was a signpost for the future -- and a fascinating figure.

I think that's part of the reason. To many in Alabama -- still too many -- women aren't supposed to be futuristic, fascinating or involved activists.

Also, in conservative Alabama, some people still question her sexuality. There is no question that she was a homely person, decidedly non-attractive physically, but Cook and others write that after she and Franklin split, Eleanor was in frequent contact with lesbians -- too frequent for some in our state.

Interestingly, they make the same complaint about Hillary Clinton, who sees in Eleanor a deep wellspring of inspiration.

But perhaps Eleanor's worst "sin" for some in our state was that she had the temerity to criticize the South.

Even though it was done with a velvet glove, the criticism in her Feb. 4, 1950, edition of the newspaper column that she wrote from 1936-52 reflects her feelings:

"There is a charm about the South," wrote Mrs. Roosevelt, who was born into a wealthy New York family. "The smell of magnolias, the lavender-and-old-lace feeling, still exists there. People are less hurried; they have more opportunity, perhaps, for the grace of living. But underneath it all I am not so sure that there are not some signs of poverty and unhappiness that will gradually have to disappear if that part of our nation is going to prosper and keep pace with the rest of it."

They were wise words but also fightin' words to some white Southerners. Yet Eleanor knew whereof she spoke.

She had relatives in Georgia, and she made a number of visits to Southern states (even after her husband's death) to check on conditions, sometimes daring to go where few self-respecting white women ventured.

My father was a newspaper reporter for the old Birmingham Age- Herald when Mrs. Roosevelt made one of her Birmingham tours. Here's what he wrote:

"Wherever she goes, Eleanor Roosevelt makes news. Not that she gives out startling announcements or profound views on world events which might cause reporters to hang on to her every word, or an eager public to wait breathlessly for her first utterance of the day. Indeed not -- for all most people know, 'My Day' (the name of Eleanor's newspaper column) might be just another turning of the calendar. …