Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Philip McMahon

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Philip McMahon

18 August 1947 [Hyde Park]

Personal—not for publication.

My dear Mrs. McMahon:

My great concern is that there shall not arise in this country a deep seated prejudice against any religion and I find a growing fear in many places which comes largely because of economic conditions, against the Roman Catholic Church.4 Historically, of course, the Catholic Church has done the same kind of thing in other countries. They acquire land and temporal power and pay no taxes. Many communities are beginning to feel that strictly speaking, only the ground occupied by churches or cemeteries should be free of taxes and that only children attending public schools should receive transportation. Naturally public schools would be free of taxation.

If we wish to send our children to private schools, we are of course, entitled to do so but then we do it at our own expense.

In many places now the Roman Catholic Church has acquired a great deal of land on which various types of institutions are built. Other churches to a lesser degree, have done the same thing and as a result I think there is a growing friction which does not differentiate between the right of people to worship as they choose and the right of a church organization to build up temporal power through the acquisition of land. My feeling is that it will create bad feeling and lessen our freedom of religion. That is why I am opposed to public transportation for children attending anything but the public schools. It is really in the interest of preserving a good feeling that I feel this is important at the present time.

                                          Very sincerely yours,


1. Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP., 330 US 1, 16-18 (1947).

2. MD, 25 July 1947.

3. Mrs. Philip McMahon to ER, 14 August 1947, AERP.

4. McMahon's August 14 letter did not mention Catholicism or any other denomination. The July 25 My Day column did not single out any denomination either, though ER's editorial centered around her disagreement with "an article answering the criticism which was made by the Northern Baptist Convention" regarding the Ewing case. As ER did not retain a copy of the article in her files, the editors could not identify the article in question. However, in March 1947, ER received a copy of a New Christian Century editorial that interpreted the Ewing decision as a "strategy of the Roman Catholic Church in its determination to secure a privileged position in the common life of this country." The Catholic Church, the editorial stated, "wants the state to provide for the complete support of its parochial schools with money derived from taxes levied on all citizens. Its ultimate purpose is to shift to the public treasury the entire burden of financing its parochial schools, while the church retains control of the educational process in them."

The article was sent to ER by her friend Dr. Charl Ormond Williams (1885–1969), president of the National Education Association. Dr. Williams also sent ER a packet of other editorial excerpts compiled by the Baptist Joint Conference Committee on Public Relations, and commented in her cover letter to ER, "the whole situation has created a storm of protest and it will very probably awaken the nation to the aims and purposes of the Roman Catholic Church" (MD, 25 July 1947; Charl Ormond Williams to ER, 28 March 1947, AERP; "Now Will Protestants Awake?," New Christian Century, 26 February 1947; "Dr. Charl Williams, Education Crusader," WP, 15 January 1969, 47).

Lobbying for the Exodus

On August 18, Helen Waren, a Broadway actress who had toured western Europe with the USO at the end of the war, sent ER a telegram detailing the situation of 4,500 Jewish refugees who had attempted to immigrate to Palestine on board the Exodus. The ship, known as Exodus 1947, made an attempt, over British objections, in mid-July 1947 to bring the displaced persons and Holocaust survivors to Palestine. British warships followed the boat and rammed it on July 18 as it neared Palestine. Three passengers were killed and many more injured in the struggle that ensued when British troops attempted to board the ship. The British eventually succeeded in bringing the passengers into the port of Haifa, where they immediately transferred most of the passengers to three prison ships, which headed back to France. The ships containing the displaced passengers now lay off Port de Bouc on the southern coast. The French government offered refuge to the Exodus group, but most of the passengers refused to disembark.1 Waren described conditions on board the ships in her telegram:

for weeks now they have been cramped men women and children in the holds of these vessels sleeping on bare boards exposed to the heat of the mediterranean sun in intolerable sanitary conditions. my brother, vacationing in france, writes me from port de bouc where he met an american crew member of the exodus who disembarked with 35 seriously ill refugees and managed to slip away from the police, that the british have been feeding them a starvation diet of tea and hard biscuits in the morning, rice with powdered milk in the afternoon and soup at night. the surplus british ration for nursing mothers has been two teaspoonsful of tinned milk in cold unboiled water. thirty-five babies have been born aboard, many prematurely. one child of seven days in one of the holds has never seen the light. the refugees are determined to carry on their struggle until their rights as human beings to life in a land of their own is recognized and they look to civilized humanity to come to their rescue.

She urged ER to "raise your courageous voice in their behalf." In reply, ER jotted at the bottom of Waren's telegram: "I think they should stay in France & wld do better to land. Advise."2 Nevertheless, on August 21, as the deadline neared and the passengers faced the possibility of returning to displaced persons camps, ER sent the following telegram to Truman.

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Philip McMahon

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Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Philip McMahon