Three first ladies who risked their lives to advance civil rights

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

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.

(CNN)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.