American Portraits

The True Meaning of Democracy: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, and Respect

In this lesson, students will learn about the respectful action of Eleanor Roosevelt towards Marian Anderson. They will explore how this demonstration of respect helped shape Mrs. Roosevelt’s purpose and identity and learn how similar displays in their own lives can help them in like manner.

Founding Principles

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

In January, 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a decision to make. An African-American singer she knew was denied an opportunity to perform at an event in Washington D.C. because of her race. Mrs. Roosevelt and her husband were known for their advocacy for justice toward the dispossessed during the Great Depression. On the other hand, the controversy was sensitive and could have negative political consequences for the administration, especially among southern members of their Democratic Party. Eleanor decided to make a stand for respect and the singer’s equal rights….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Eleanor Roosevelt’s demonstration of respect help us practice the virtue in our own lives?

Virtue Defined

How can Eleanor Roosevelt’s demonstration of respect help us practice the virtue in our own lives?

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the respectful action of Eleanor Roosevelt towards Marian Anderson. They will explore how this demonstration of respect helped shape Mrs. Roosevelt’s purpose and identity and learn how similar displays in their own lives can help them in like manner.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Eleanor Roosevelt’s show of respect toward Marian Anderson in 1939.
  • Students will understand how being respectful can help shape their identity and purpose.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to pursue more respectful actions in their own lives.

Background

Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932 and was elected to an unprecedented four terms due to the crises of the Great Depression and World War II. African Americans made up an important block of Democratic voters called the “New Deal Coalition.” Blacks switched their electoral allegiance from the Republican “Party of Lincoln,” who they had been voting for in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation, to the party of FDR.

President Roosevelt had a somewhat mixed record on race relations. He refused to support an anti-lynching bill in Congress, where much of his party’s strength was comprised of Southern Democrats. Moreover, the New Deal programs had many instances of discriminating against African Americans in the distribution of relief. Nevertheless, many black sharecroppers were devastated by the Great Depression and welcomed the desperately needed aid. They felt they had a champion in the White House.

African Americans also felt as if they had another champion in the White House in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt had long been a crusader for the equal rights of workers, women, and blacks. In 1939, she took one of her most decisive and symbolically important stands for the equal rights of African Americans when singer Marian Anderson was refused an opportunity to perform because of her skin color. Roosevelt showed great respect for Ms. Anderson and for the rights of African Americans in general.

Vocabulary

  • Unprecedented
  • Electoral
  • Allegiance
  • Crusader
  • Decisive
  • Symbolically
  • Great Depression
  • Lynching
  • New Deal
  • Sharecropper
  • Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)
  • Dispossessed
  • World-renowned
  • Syndicated
  • Dignitaries
  • Comprised
  • Denigrated

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Eleanor Roosevelt and what was her relationship to Marian Anderson?
  • How did Eleanor Roosevelt show respect toward Marian Anderson?
  • How do you treat others with respect in your life?
  • What does Eleanor Roosevelt’s demonstration of respect reveal about her identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • “Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
  • “Marian Anderson and the Easter Sunday Concert, April 9, 1939.” Rediscovering Black History. May 20, 2014.
  • “Exhibit: Eleanor Roosevelt Letter.” National Archives and Records Administration.

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