In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are. —Eleanor Roosevelt
President Obama’s recent visit to a US mosque and his condemnation of the “inexcusable political rhetoric” perpetrated against Muslims by a number of the leading Republican candidates for president is an important step in trying to counter the growing anti-Muslim backlash that has come in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. But the president and other leading civic and political leaders need to do much more if they hope thwart the climate of hate and fear that has been stimulated by the unconscionable anti-Muslim statements made by Donald Trump and other leading candidates for the White House.
One person the president and others might draw strength from in this effort is Eleanor Roosevelt.
On December 16, 1941, less than ten days after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when the Japanese army was furiously advancing on Malaya and the Philippines, and when Hitler’s armies had overrun all Europe and stood a mere 25 miles from the center of Moscow, Eleanor Roosevelt had the courage to challenge the American people not to give in to their fears.
She had just returned from a trip to the West Coast, where she bore witness to the apprehension and rising hatred many of her fellow citizens had directed towards Americans of Japanese descent. Given that we had suddenly found ourselves thrust into a global war, some of the anxiety that the American people were feeling at this moment was understandable. But she was confident—as she wrote in her My Day column—in the ability of the FBI and Secret Service to ferret out any German, Italian, or Japanese agents who might represent a threat to the United States. And she calmly advised her fellow Americans to report any suspicious activity to the proper authorities.
But she also cautioned her fellow citizens not to forget that “the great mass of our people, stemming from these various national ties, must not feel that they have suddenly ceased to be Americans.” Indeed, she went on, how the American people respond to this crisis represents “perhaps, the greatest test this country has ever met.” Americans, after all, “come from all the nations of the world,” and as some of us have remarked, we may be “the only proof that different nationalities could live together in peace and understanding, each bringing his own contribution, different though it may be, to the final unity which is the United States.”
And then, in words that powerfully resonate in today’s climate of fear and xenophobia, she admonished the American people not to forget the unique role that the United States can and must play at this critical moment. For “if,” she went on, “out of the present chaos there is ever to come a world where free people live together peacefully, in Europe, Asia or in the Americas, we shall have to furnish the pattern.”