Former first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Michelle Obama.

Editor’s Note: Nancy Kegan Smith is an archivist and former director of the Presidential Materials Division at the National Archives and Records Administration. She writes and lectures on first ladies and is co-editor of “Modern First Ladies: Their Documentary Legacy.” Diana B. Carlin, a professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University, writes and lectures on the history of first ladies and their legacies. Anita McBride is an executive-in-residence at American University in Washington, DC, directing the First Ladies Initiative. She was second-term chief of staff to Laura Bush. The opinions expressed here are their own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.

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George Floyd’s tragic death and the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement have generated a national discussion on race relations and how to address long-term systemic racism. In crisis situations, Americans often look to political leaders for direction, words of comfort, empathy and solutions.

Too often overlooked are the words and deeds of a powerful group of non-elected public figures — first ladies — who confront controversy and demonstrate to all Americans what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Nancy Kegan Smith
Diana B. Carlin

Historians have called first ladies “mirrors” of their times. And throughout the complicated history with race in the United States, many first ladies accepted the challenge and advanced society in ways small and large. However, three first ladies in particular did much more. They were leaders in generating societal support for civil right issues.

Although they came from very different backgrounds — an aristocratic New Yorker, a nature-loving Texan and an African American from the South Side of Chicago — each in her own way championed African Americans’ rights to acceptance, respect and inclusion in the form of voting rights, quality education and civil rights.

Anita McBride

And in spite of facing death threats, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Michelle Obama pushed forward trying to address systemic racism in different eras and in different ways.

Historically, the relationship between first ladies and race has a checkered past. Eight first ladies, starting with Martha Washington, brought their enslaved servants to the executive mansion.

America’s second first lady, Abigail Adams, was a strong advocate of abolition, asking of Southerners “how could they reconcile human bondage with the ideology of freedom that Americans had fought for?”

Mary Todd Lincoln was a strong supporter of abolition as first lady, even though she came from Kentucky family that had enslaved servants and had relatives serving in the Confederate army. She faced constant threats during the Civil War that the President’s family would be kidnapped by Confederate forces and was called a traitor by the press and others in both the North and South.

She contributed to and raised money for the Contraband Relief Fund, which provided aid to former slaves known as “contraband” in Washington, DC., writing to her husband that her friend and seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley — one of the escaped slaves — had told her that an “immense number … (of) contrabands in Washington are suffering intensely.”

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    From the Civil War forward many first ladies publicly took positions supportive of racial justice. Lucy Hayes was an abolitionist and an early supporter of the pro-abolition Republican Party while Helen “Nellie” Taft was an early advocate of racial equality. She believed in equal educational opportunities and supported establishing kindergartens in the South for Black children.

    Ellen Wilson, more progressive than her husband Woodrow, who promoted segregation in federal agencies, helped improve the terrible living conditions of African Americans in the District of Columbia, working with the district’s National Civil Federation.

    Laura Bush celebrated the Harlem Renaissance — one of the richest literary periods in American history — at the White House Salute to America’s Authors in March 2002. Bush said the poetry and prose of the writers captured “the stark realities of being black in America.”

    Like some other first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt was a stronger advocate for civil rights than her husband. But unlike her predecessors, Roosevelt was not just supportive of civil rights, she actively championed people, causes and legislation that promoted civil rights and consistently fought racial discrimination and prejudice.

    First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and singer Marian Anderson in Japan on May 22, 1953.

    Just a few examples: joining and addressing the 1936 annual NAACP and National Urban League conventions, advocating for anti-lynching legislation, supporting multiple anti-segregation campaigns, co-chairing the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax (used in the South after the Civil War with the purpose of disenfranchising African Americans), and convening the National Conference of Negro Women at the White House.

    Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization refused to let Marian Anderson, a Black opera singer, perform. Instead, she arranged for her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — one of the great early events in civil rights history with an estimated audience of 75,000.

    Roosevelt also spoke out and wrote repeatedly on the injustice of racism, saying that democracy for African Americans was a crucial part of democracy for the United States and that “one of the main destroyers of freedom is our attitude toward the colored race.”

    She continued her strong actions on this issue after leaving the White House. Because of her strong support and actions in trying to end racism, the Ku Klux Klan placed a bounty on her head.

    Lady Bird Johnson was another strong advocate for civil rights and legislative action. She grew up in rural east Texas, where her two African American playmates gave her the lifelong name of Lady Bird.

    She always felt racism and segregation in the South were wrong. Her most visible support of civil rights was her groundbreaking solo whistle-stop campaign trip in October 1964.

    First lady Lady Bird Johnson on her 1,628-mile whistle-stop tour of the South in October 1964.

    After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson planned a four-day train trip through the South to show her support for the landmark legislation finally outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, mandating desegregation of public facilities and education and ending unequal application of voter registration laws.

    Her press secretary, Liz Carpenter, told PBS that Johnson “wanted to go where other Democrats weren’t going.”

    “In 1964, anybody could go to Atlanta and speak out for civil rights and still get out with their hides on,” Carpenter said. “She told us to give her the tough towns. And so we took Charleston.”

    As Johnson explained in her first speech: “I know that many of you do not agree with the civil rights bill or the President’s support of it … It would be a bottomless tragedy for our country to be racially divided and here I want to say emphatically, this is not a challenge only in the South. It is a national challenge — in the big cities of the North as in the South.”

    She ended her trip in New Orleans with words that still resonate today: “We are testing as a nation whether we shall move forward with understanding of each other, and each other’s needs, ever increasing our total power … in common trust and faith: or whether we shall move backward, toward a denial by each of the other’s needs, into a national climate of fear and distrust and dislike.”

    The conditions for this trip were extremely dangerous. Lyndon Johnson’s aides considered it unsafe for him to go to the South, yet Johnson demonstrated courage and maintained a calm demeanor as she made her points.

    She often met with boos and hecklers and traveled the route with a decoy engine running 15 minutes ahead because of the numerous bomb threats.

    Media commentators credited her successful trip with helping garner Southern support for LBJ, who won several Southern states in the 1964 election, at a time when it was feared Southern Democrats would bolt the party.

    News reports estimated that more than 1 million people heard her message, and with national television coverage she elevated dialogue and encouraged the support and implementation of civil rights.

    First lady Michelle Obama speaking at Topeka High School in Kansas on May 16, 2014: "It's about our future."

    When Michelle Obama became the first African American first lady 45 years later, she brought a very different background than any other first lady. The descendant of slaves, her life mirrored a changing American society that had made many advances for civil rights and racial equality, but also demonstrated the ongoing struggle for African Americans in achieving the American dream.

    Like Roosevelt and Johnson, she was subject to death threats as she focused on ensuring that the White House was more inclusive and to serving as a role model for minorities, particularly young African American women.

    She continues to use her platform to call attention to racial disparities, especially in education, and to emphasize inclusion and diversity. She has spoken about growing up in Chicago’s segregated South Side, where she was told by a guidance counselor she wasn’t good enough to go to an Ivy League school.

    Her voice of authenticity was one young African Americans were willing to hear. In a high school commencement speech in Topeka, Kansas, commemorating the Brown v Board of Education decision, Obama spoke emphatically about the importance of education to transform lives, especially those of young minority students.

    She noted that in many communities “our schools are as segregated as they were when Dr. King gave his final speech. So, graduates, the truth is that Brown v. Board of Ed isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future.”

    She inspired change in other profound ways, helping the nation understand its complicated past and relationship between slavery and freedom. “I wake up every day in a house built by slaves,” she said.

    Her words focused public attention on the history of slaves in the White House — resulting in a research initiative by the White House Historical Association unveiled in February 2020 called “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood.”

    Throughout her tenure she was the victim of numerous racist and sexist attacks, and like Roosevelt and Johnson, faced threats of physical violence including death threats.

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    As we look at America’s civil rights history in the shadow of ongoing protest that aims to better the future, we should not forget the women who complemented their husbands’ work and even outpaced them by leaving a lasting legacy of championing racial equality.

    In commenting on what Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for African Americans meant, prominent African American journalist Vernon Jarrett mentioned an important quality when he said, “Most Black people were struck with the genuineness and the feeling that she was for real, not only the so-called sympathetic statements.”

    She showed empathy, Jarrett said, and appeared to be thoroughly convinced “that America could not live up to its promise of being a democracy unless it did something about the racial problem in this country.”

    This empathetic quality applies to all three of these first ladies and their collective efforts in the continuum of our nation’s story to move forward in advancing civil rights. Their deeds and push for equality of treatment came at very different times in history, but they offer us valuable examples of grace and courage under pressure — and a continued challenge to finally finish their important work.