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President Roosevelt and the Forging of a New Deal for African Americans

No one needed to point out to him the discrepancies between what we said we were fighting for, and what we did to him. We did not need the NAACP to show him that it sounds pretty foolish to be against benches marked “Jude” in Berlin, but to for park benches marked “Colored” in Tallahassee, Florida-–Roy Wilkins

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance—-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Facing the specter of 100,000 militant African Americans marching in the segregated nation’s capital, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave in to the demands for a federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and additional jobs in the booming wartime industries. Only ten years before this would have been an unimaginable scenario and outcome, African Americans pressuring a Democratic president, whom they overwhelmingly supported, to desegregate the massive employment structures of the defense industries and the armed forces. How had this tremendous change come about in one short decade?

The Great Transformation

Chicago Attorney Earl B. Dickerson, one of a record number of six black delegates to the Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1924 boldly predicted that if the party would take a firm stand “against discrimination by reason of race, creed or color” and for civil rights in general they would convince over two million African American voters in the north to switch from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. With Herbert Hoover leading his Republican Party to exclude African Americans from the political life of the south, despite his party’s dependence upon their votes, many recognized that the Democrats had a golden opportunity in the coming presidential contests. With the tipping point balancing black political power and that of the segregationist south a few years away, Dickerson addressed an audience that included some of the same southern leaders who authored much of the disfranchising and segregating legislation. His urgent pleas that the convention adopt a strong anti-lynching plank also proved futile as the Resolutions Committee rejected the call to make lynching a federal crime and instead agreed with the measure’s opponents that it was a matter for state and local authorities. The Democratic Party, however, was undergoing a transition and segregationist power was waning and their victories in party debates would soon become rarer.

Political and social transformation was fueled by the national trauma induced by the Depression impacting the economy, social life and politics. President Hoover’s judgment, as expressed by an administration figure, “My sober and considered judgement is that . . . federal aid would be a disservice to the unemployed” failed to respond to black, as well as, white needs at the inception of the economic downturn. Roosevelt’s stress on the immediacy of the crisis, his emphasis on direly needed social programs, and the new strength of the new powerful bloc of black urban voters, facilitated the transformation in party loyalty. African Americans lost only an handful of mid-level appointments in the event of Republican victories, only a few more than Democrats would yield without blacks support. Soon, in the 1930s, millions of blacks would benefit from social programs, although they remained unequal in practice, and have a greater incentive to cast the Democratic vote.

The year nineteen hundred thirty-two began as a typical modern election year for African American voters. Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover who would be pitted against the Democratic nominee had spurned African Americans by his long-standing Lily White southern strategy. Front-running Democratic hopeful Franklin Delano Roosevelt had presided over the segregation of the department of the navy during his tenure as assistant secretary of the navy during the Wilson administration. The other leading Democratic contenders in 1932 Alfred E. Smith, John Nance Garner, Richie, and Byrd all opposed civil rights and federal intervention in the South under the banner of states’ rights. Longtime FDR aide, Louis McHenry Howe advised Roosevelt to prioritize winning southern white support. Roosevelt should “remember our southern brethren” and not “the anxious colored brethren.”

Just what the “anxious colored brethren’s” interests consisted of were was suggested in a party plank offered by the The Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. A guarantee of voting rights, black representation in the president's cabinet, an anti-lynching law, “fair” representation of blacks in the police forces, and an end to the exclusion of blacks from trade unions. Roosevelt’s electoral victories, especially in 1936, however, were the result of support from broad array of social forces including urban blue-collar workers, white southerners, Catholic ethnic groups, and African Americans. From the 1928 election when roughly one-quarter of African Americans supported the Democratic nominee for president, Roosevelt garnered some three-quarters of the vote in 1936. Under the two-thirds rule the consent of the representatives of the South—elected under conditions of almost total black disfranchisement—were necessary to successfully nominate a candidate for president. Its abolition in 1936 effectively reduced the power of the anti-black forces at the Democratic National Convention.

FDR: Prelude to the Presidency

During his youth Franklin Delano Roosevelt, influenced by his cousin Theodore’s philosophy of the “strenuous life,” was very active physically participating in a variety of sports and outdoor physical activities including swimming, sailing, tennis, horseback riding, and golf. However, following his defeat in the 1920 election as the vice-presidential running mate of Democratic presidential nominee James M. Cox of Ohio, Roosevelt found himself battling for his life against a mysterious debilitating illness. In August 1921, while on vacation with his family at their Campobello summer home in New Brunswick, Canada Roosevelt suddenly felt incredibly tired after swimming in a pond. Soon he had a temperature of 102 degrees and was unable to move his legs. Later, it was determined to be polio, confining him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.

Although athletic, Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted with many physical problems, even before he was stricken with polio. Sinus infections, bacterial infections, pneumonia and other illness had troubled him during his youth. Following the stabilizing of his condition, Roosevelt staged a major political comeback, capturing the governorship of New York in 1928. Almost immediately, his popularity in the politically important state of New York made him a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

Born in January 1882, Franklin Roosevelt’s childhood was spent mostly in the company of his parents who supervised his life closely. Roosevelt’s ancestry extended far back into the era of the early European settlement of the nation with his earliest American ancestors and that of his distant relative Theodore and his cousin Eleanor was Claes Martenszen Van Roosevelt. Sugar production, fueled by the labor of slaves for centuries in the Western Hemisphere, made the Roosevelt family wealthy by the era of the American Revolution. While the family continued to enrich themselves through the West Indian sugar well into the 20th century, another ancestor Warren Delano made his fortunes from commerce in China, including the sale of opium.

With aid of his personal tutor Franklin D. Roosevelt progressed rapidly in his studies, enrolling in the Groton School at age 14, and soon afterwards, Harvard University. In 1905, Roosevelt married his cousin Eleanor, already considerably more liberal than he. At the age of eighteen, Eleanor Roosevelt had been involved in efforts to improve social conditions for working people in New York City. For Franklin, however, a basic part of his upbringing involved an unquestioning acceptance of the values, beliefs, and norms of white supremacy. When he retreated to rest at Warm Springs, Georgia he behaved as would a typical white employer of black laborers paying them in sub-standard housing and $5 per week. While he used his influence to help a school’s construction there with WPA and PWA funds, and, later with his wife built the “Eleanor Roosevelt Vocational School for Colored Youth,” their racial practices conformed to the existing systematic inequality. Like many others, he occasionally used the word “nigger” when routinely referring to African Americans.

Franklin Roosevelt’s upbringing imbued him with a tinge of Victorian conservatism that included a puritanical strain. Although his cousin Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, FDR’s branch of the family was traditionally Democratic. As admirer of Woodrow Wilson, he was unconcerned about the condition or progress of African Americans during the early portion of his career. There is no evidence that his conscience troubled him as he handed down the orders to segregate the restrooms of the Navy Department building while in the Wilson administration.

Prior to his administration, there was no indication that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be the president in whose successive terms African Americans were able to register important advances. Indeed, Roosevelt’s 1932 “southern strategy” entailed cultivating ties to southern Democratic state parties and avoiding being associated with northern black Democrats. In October 1931 he had hosted leading southern Democrats from Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee at his Warm Springs, Georgia home. The polio treatment center and cottage he owned helped him establish his claim to be partly based in the South.

Not surprisingly then, the nomination of Roosevelt was initially a disappointment to a number of African Americans who were desperately searching for an alternative to a Republican Party that increasingly failed to offer them any incentive for their support. Roosevelt’s choice for his vice-presidential running mate, John Nance Garner of Uvalde, Texas—Uvale was a “sundown town,” where blacks were forbidden to live—further alienated him from the black electorate. Only four years earlier the Democratic National Convention featured caged enclosures for the African American observers, and it was no surprise that there were no black delegates to the convention. Roosevelt’s 1932 acceptance speech failed to mention either civil rights or African Americans as did his Republican rival Herbert Hoover’s whose acceptance speech also neglected these subjects.

Mary Church Terrell as the head of the Republican Party’s Colored Voters Division in the east stressed the for black audiences the connections binding Roosevelt to southern racists, exemplified by Garner’s selection. She declared that “the laws which have been designed to impede the progress of the colored people, wound their sensibilities, crush their pride and destroy the manhood and womanhood of the race had been enacted by the Democratic party.” Garner’s record on race was clear, as he had voted consistently against appropriations for Howard University, had fired thirty-three black congressional employees en masse, and stood dead set against anti-lynching bills.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President

1933 to 1945

Birth: January 30, 1882, Hyde Park, New York

Death: April 12, 1945

Education: Harvard, Columbia Law School

Religion: Episcopal

Profession: Politician, Corporate Lawyer

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt Oct 11, 1999, CSPAN

Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 electoral contest handily garnering 57 percent to Hoover’s 40 percent of the popular vote winning 472 electoral votes to 59. African Americans gave an unprecedented level of support to the Democratic presidential candidate bolstering the sense of optimism of many blacks who recalled Roosevelt’s campaign promise that his administration’s programs would be both racially inclusive and equitable. While an estimated 30 percent of African-Americans supported Roosevelt in 1932, by 1936 some 75 percent of blacks would cast their votes for him as an incumbent.

The Depression-era programs were rife with various forms of racial prejudice, discrimination and exclusion, but paradoxically marked a new level of black inclusion. Several analysts note that while the Roosevelt administration had within it many individuals sympathetic to the struggles of African Americans for equal rights, in general “blacks were not singled out for special attention.”

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was established by the National Industrial Recovery Act, as a key link in the strategy for national economic recovery. From the inception of the agency, blacks hoped that its employment practices would be free of racial bias and were encouraged by Roosevelt administration officials who gave assurances that race would not be a factor in hiring and promotion. Racism proved too entrenched and President Roosevelt’s will too weak, however, to overturn decades-old exploitative patterns. The new labor code failed to cover a large portion of the jobs African Americans were most heavily represented in. Through a complex web of eligibility qualifications for coverage , NRA minimum wages scales bypassed blacks. In cotton mills, for example, “cleaners” and “outside employees,” occupational categories that the vast majority of blacks fell into, were excluded from NRA coverage. For many prices rose without a corresponding rise in personal income. In addition, the codes failed to cover the thousands of black workers who worked as domestics. The codes effectively legitimated the depressed wages that remained typical for blacks in the South and contained no safeguards against racially-motivated firings that would inevitably occur with the raising of the wages paid to black workers. The Civilian Conservation Corps almost completely excluded black men from its beneficiaries while in the FERA and the WPA many African Americans participated. T. Arnold Hill, a National Urban League aide, felt that “the will of those who have kept Negroes in economic disfranchisement has been permitted to prevail, and the government has looked on in silence and at times with approval. Consequently, the Negro worker has good reason to feel that this government has betrayed him under the New Deal.”

The Depression hit blacks in southern rural areas particularly hard. More than one analyst has concluded that the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and NRA “failed conspicuously to relieve the distress” of African American workers and farmers. The basic objective of the AAA was to control farm acreage and production in order to enhance the prices of agricultural goods. Farmers who reduced acreage were eligible for subsidies. Southern white landowners feared that the program would increase the independence of black tenant farmers and the Roosevelt administration took their prejudices and desires for continued domination into full consideration. Federal program managers acquiesced to the racist traditions of the region and suggested cotton contracts giving landowners four and a half cents for every pound of cotton not grown and tenants one-half cent a pound of cotton not grown. In other parts of the nation for other crops, such divisions work on the order of fifty-fifty. The tenants’ share of one-ninth of the subsidy was distributed to the landowner, reinforcing the landowner's ability to control the tenant.

The protests of the NAACP and other black activist organizations went largely unheeded by the Roosevelt administration. Recommendations that the crop reduction payments be given directly to the tenants and the appointment of blacks to help administer the program went unheeded. The southern AAA programs included an appeal process consisting of local committees composed only of whites. Thus, appeals from blacks challenging decisions would be considered by committees with substantial numbers of white landowners represented on them. A large part of the black enthusiasm for Roosevelt derived from the mere fact that they were included, not excluded, from the new Depression-era social programs. Paradoxically, the federal government’s New Deal programs also accounted for much of Roosevelt’s initial popularity in the South bolstering the southern elite’s power and giving them a feeling of being finally included in the national mainstream.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was also organized along lines amenable to the white southern elite. Initially, the benefits flowed almost exclusively to whites as blacks were excluded from the vast majority of camps. Only 3 percent of the first 250,000 CCC recruits were black. Pressure from the NAACP and other groups succeeded in forcing the recruitment of an increased number of blacks. Nevertheless, a very low glass ceiling led to few blacks at the agency in positions of authority.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), contrary to its formal prohibition of racial discrimination, excluded blacks from entire newly-constructed communities. Despite the NAACP's Walter White’s protests of this segregation, John Neely, Jr., a TVA administrator declared, “You can raise all the ‘rumpus’ you like. We just aren't going to mix Negroes and white folks together in any village in TVA.” An investigation by the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall found no blacks employed in white-collar positions, no blacks in apprenticeship program, and only five blacks in the training divisions.

Eleanor Roosevelt proved to be the “wild card” of the Roosevelt administration. The work of the First Lady, the president’s cousin, stood in marked contrast to that of a few of his top aides, such as Steve Early. More than anyone else Eleanor Roosevelt made her husband the best he could be on race. Following the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to rent Constitution Hall to the famed African American contralto Marian Anderson, Roosevelt’s Department of Interior countered this racially discriminatory act by allowing the use of the Lincoln Memorial for a large open-air concert. Later, Eleanor Roosevelt presented Anderson with the NAACP’s Spingarn medal. To reinforce the message of these events, Roosevelt invited Anderson to perform at the White House before British royal guests.

In his 1933 address to the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, Roosevelt condemned lynching as “collective murder.” Walter White of the NAACP met with Roosevelt to push for his support of anti-lynching legislation. White’s discussion with the President was preceded by a more favorable encounter with his wife, Eleanor. FDR tried to avoid discussing the issue, and when forced to respond to White’s arguments, admitted that he was unwilling to confront the power of the southern wing of the Democratic Party on this issue. White quotes him as stating:

I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.

Economic recovery had priority over anti-discrimination measures, Roosevelt maintained. As did presidents before him and presidents following him he indicated his fear of alienating southern lawmakers which was perceived to threaten his entire legislative program. Later, according to one view, Roosevelt was convinced that some southern senators would choose to risk losing World War Two for the sake of maintaining the system of racial segregation.

During the mid-1940s Roosevelt continued to take action only when pressured. Following his appointment of a commission in 1943 to study southern anti-black discrimination on the railroads, he took a firm position of caution, gradualism, and optimism. Sounding much more patient than the African Americans of the era, Roosevelt said that he didn’t believe that he could “bring about the millennium at this time,” but hoped that the advances of the past decade could continue. His slowness in striving for racial justice can be seen in the fact that during the first dozen years of the Roosevelt administration the African-American press was actually banned from press conferences. It took until February 1944 for Roosevelt to invite fifteen members of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) to a press conference.

On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died shortly after he poked fun at the weight of his black maid. The president mused to the African American woman that in her next life she would want to be a canary. He then said that his head hurt, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.