President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt really a friend to African Americans?
One important demographic change underlay the experience of African Americans during the Roosevelt years. The migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North, which began in 1910, continued in the 1930s and accelerated in the 1940s during World War II. As a result, black Americans during the Roosevelt years lived for the most part either in the urban North or in the rural South, although the Depression chased increasingly large numbers of blacks to southern cities as well. In the North, blacks encountered de facto segregation, racism, and discrimination in housing and public services; nevertheless, they were able to vote and had better job opportunities. In the South, blacks were disfranchised, lived under a segregationist regime enforced by violence, and found fewer avenues for escape from crushing poverty.
No matter where they lived, African Americans were especially hard hit by the Depression. In the rural South, blacks found it increasingly difficult even to survive. In Northern and Southern cities, blacks saw their jobs—which were usually of the entry level, low paying, and unskilled or semi-skilled variety—disappear, either consumed by the faltering economy or snatched up by desperate unemployed whites. By 1932, over half of blacks in Southern cities were unemployed. The employment situation for African Americans in the urban North was only marginally better for the growing black middle class. In Harlem, black ownership or management of property dropped precipitously in the first half of the 1930s.
Did the New Deal improve the lot of African Americans? The record is mixed. The aid provided by the New Deal to America’s poor—black and white—was insufficient. Racism reared its head in the New Deal, often because federal programs were administered through local authorities or community leaders who brought their own racial biases to the table. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) offered white landowners cash for leaving their fields fallow, which they happily accepted; they, however, did not pass on their government checks to the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who actually worked the land. Even in the North, blacks found that New Deal programs did not always treat them as well as whites.
There can be little doubt, however, that the New Deal in many instances was a boon to African Americans. In one sense, this was a question of degree. Aid to African Americans prior to 1933, especially in the South, had been nearly non-existent; the federal help that did come with the New Deal, therefore, was significant. In addition, New Deal agencies like the WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) grew more sensitive throughout the 1930s to the needs of African Americans, largely because of the leadership of Roosevelt appointees at those agencies. Indeed, African Americans found significant allies in the administration, from Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to the First Lady herself, Eleanor Roosevelt. Enough blacks, like Mary McLeod Bethune, found themselves in leadership positions that there was even talk of a “black Cabinet” of FDR advisers.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approach towards civil rights legislation was janus-faced. FDR spoke out against lynching, found the poll tax reprehensible, and, at the prodding of his wife, met in the White House with African American civil rights leaders. FDR, though, refused to make an anti-lynching bill a priority, though, in truth, opposition to the legislation was so strong that it never had a chance. In his defense, FDR claimed—and he was probably correct—that endorsing legislation which threatened the South’s racial order would cost him the votes of Southerners in Congress—support he desperately needed.
World War II accelerated many of the trends in African American life that became clear during the 1930s. Blacks continued to move from rural areas to cities, and more than half a million moved to the North during the war years. The war brought a surge in public and private spending that in turn spurred job creation and created a full-employment economy—which meant that blacks found both more and better jobs. On the other hand, the growing presence of blacks in the urban industrial North exacerbated racial tensions with whites. The result was sometimes deadly violence, as in the riots that shook Detroit in 1943.
Spurred by the U.S. crusade against Nazism, black advocates of civil rights called for a “double V” campaign that would bring victories against fascism abroad and racism at home. The war years saw the growth of black organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Committee (later Congress) for Racial Equality, dedicated to winning civil rights at home. Blacks even met with some success; during the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph threatened the Roosevelt administration with a 100,000 person “March on Washington” if discrimination was not ended in the military and the defense industries. Roosevelt capitulated and issued an Executive Order creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s performance, then was deeply flawed, but blacks rendered their own verdict when in 1936 they abandoned their historic allegiance to the Republicans, the party of Abe Lincoln, and moved in large numbers over to the Democrats, the party of FDR, where they have been ever since. One of Roosevelt’s severest critics, Ralph Bunch, said the FDR era “represented a radical break with the past,” and W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that Roosevelt “gave the American Negro a kind of recognition in political life which the Negro had never before received.”