History Uncorked: African Americans and the New Deal

On Tuesday, February 25th, we held our first event of the season at the New-York Historical Society!

Ambassador vanden Heuvel led a discussion on how the New Deal shaped the African American experience during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement. Scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ira Katznelson and Kevin McMahon explored this rich and complicated story with the Ambassador, in honor of Black History Month. 

We’ve selected a few excerpts from the evening from each of our three guest speakers. Let us know your thoughts and reactions!

Dr. Ira Katznelson on the political party-system of the era

We think of American politics as organized and a competition of two parties and certainly of the 20th century there were Republicans and Democrats. But when FDR took his oath of office and told us that we had “nothing to fear, but fear itself,” realistically speaking, we had a three-party system:  There were Republicans, there were Non-Southern Democrats, and there were Southern Democrats.

Why a three party system? Of course the Southern Democrats were Democrats, they dominated much of the Democratic Party. After 1938, the majority of Democrats in Congress were elected from Jim Crow states. The southern wing of the Party was the largest wing, but in fact, there was a three-party system because the Southerners who were elected, were elected by a remarkably different political system that elected Republicans and other Democrats. It was a one-party system. There were virtually no Republicans of consequence in the Jim Crow South.

In 1940 there were seventeen states in the Union that mandated racial segregation. They elected thirty-four United States Senators. Every single one in 1940 was a Democrat. A core basis of the Democratic Party was this root elected from within the segregated South, and they had enormous advantages. It’s critical to understand the constraints the Roosevelt Administration faced, the limits of possibility, and thus, the course that Civil Rights strugglers had to face when they looked at the American political system in the 1930s and 1940s. Seventeen states, thirty-four senators, ninety-six senators in all. No piece of legislation could pass if they said “No.” And after 1938, when no Southerners were a majority of the majority party, they controlled the political agenda in Congress…

Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi, the leading racist in the Senate, campaigned in 1940 by saying, “I am a one-hundred percent New Dealer,” but he accused Eleanor Roosevelt of supporting 'mongrelization.' He supported lynching, if necessary, to keep the racial order of the South. It was this set of contradictions, progressive on the one hand, deeply racist on the other. In this period, southern members of Congress in the House and the Senate, varied from awful racists like Bilbo to very appealing persons, like young Lynden Johnson or a liberal like Claude Pepper of Florida. But in this period, not one member of the Democratic Party elected from the South ever opposed racial segregation. That includes Claude Pepper, who in 1948 campaigned for Harry Truman, argued across the South that Truman’s Civil Rights policies are not the end to segregation, but a way to ensure the continuity of segregation. That was the world African Americans faced, the Democratic Party faced, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman faced, when they sought to make change in the United States.

Farah Jasmine Griffin on Eleanor Roosevelt and the culture of the era

In terms of how African Americans felt about Roosevelt, Billie Holiday gave her friend and colleague, Lester Young, a nickname. For those of you who are jazz fans know that Lester Young named her Lady Day and she named himPrez. She named him Prez after Franklin Roosevelt because Franklin Roosevelt was the man of the time. This resonates with how people felt in Harlem, but also in African American communities.

We know that prior to his election many African Americans voted Republican. Those who could vote, as Ira said, they were not necessarily able to vote in Southern states, but they voted Republican – it was the Party of Lincoln, the Party of reconstruction. After Roosevelt, seventy-five percent of African Americans would vote for Democrats.

Writer Ann Petry, a life-long Republican, never could register as a Democrat because she couldn’t register in a Party that could tolerate the presence of the Southern Democrats and Dixiecrats, but she always voted Democrat for presidents after Roosevelt…

The New Deal programs really produced an environment that not only nurtured their work, but people would later on emerge as the most well known artists of the time, like a Ralph Ellison or a Richard Wright – nurtured by the WPA. President Roosevelt and certainly Mrs. Roosevelt helped produce a context in which black artists and intellectuals felt that they could more militantly put forth certain kinds of demands on their nation. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was very close to Mrs. Roosevelt, said that for the first time African Americans felt that they had a sympathetic ear at the top of their nation and they never felt like they had that direct line of communication and sympathy before Roosevelt.

Dr. Kevin McMahon on Brown versus Board

In the course of the 1930s there were some hundred-fifty Civil Rights pieces of legislation that were introduced in Congress. None of them passed. President Roosevelt publicly supported none of them, so the question I have is:  Why do you get a decision like Brown v. Board approximately nine years after FDR’s death? It was a unanimous decision. What role does the Roosevelt Presidency play in this lead up to Brown v. Board of Education?

In the course of his Presidency, Roosevelt was able to appoint nine Justices to the Supreme Court. He replaced every Supreme Court Justice except for one… I argue that there are two main things going on here, the appointments themselves, who he appointed was in part impacted by those who opposed or supported his court-packing plan. One of the key opponents in Congress, of the court-packing plan and in his effort to increase the size of the Court to fifteen justices, were Southern Democrats. They were concerned what six FDR Justices might look like with regard to issues of civil rights. He appointed progressives – not necessarily racial progressives, but he appointed progressives – that once on the Court, were certainly open to hearing arguments about civil rights and civil liberties.

The second, more important, thing that occured is in 1939:  Frank Murphy, one of the most progressive politicians of that time period, was appointed Attorney General. He was a former Governor of Michigan, former Mayor of Detroit, and played a key role in the sit-down strike as Governor of Michigan. Once Murphy was appointed to the Attorney General he began what was ultimately called the Civil Rights section of the Justice Department... With the combination of FDR’s Justice on the Court and Justice Department actions beginning in 1939, continuing with a string of cases in the 1940s up until 1952 when the Truman Administration issued a brief in support of the NAACP position in Brown, and then the Eisenhower Administration did the same, the combination of those two factors were ultimately instrumental in producing the Brown v. Board decision.