With worries that the current financial crisis could lead to a repeat of the Great Depression, it should not be surprising that liberals are yearning for a new FDR. Furthermore, if the New Deal administration represented a break with the historical past through its apparent embrace of sweeping social change, who better to adopt the new mantle of FDR than Barack Obama, an African-American candidate pledged to change. Seeing the connections, the liberal FireDogLake blog put it this way:
In 1932 Hoover offered FDR a deal. FDR could take power early to deal with the crisis, if only he agreed to take care of it as Hoover wished. FDR said “no way”. This is Obama’s FDR moment. He can let Bush and Paulson define what his presidency will be about, how the crisis will be dealt with, or he can stand up and say “no way.”
For his admirers, it might not even seem like a liability if Obama’s call for change has little substance beneath it. After all, FDR was not elected as any kind of fire-breathing populist. His promises were fairly centrist, as are Obama’s. Could Obama promote economic and racial change across the board once in office, just as FDR did? Before answering this question, it might be useful to take a close look at FDR’s actual performance with respect to civil rights.
In a special issue commemorating the New Deal, the Nation Magazine invited a number of high-profile liberals and radicals to speak about different aspects of the FDR presidency. Adolph Reed, a Trotskyist in his youth who nowadays speaks from an economistic perspective (class trumps race), was assigned to write about “Race and the New Deal,” about which he had the following to say:
But the fact is, most New Deal programs were anything but race-neutral–or, for that matter, gender-neutral–in their impact. Some, like the initial Social Security old-age pension program, were established on a racially invidious, albeit officially race-neutral, basis by excluding from coverage agricultural and domestic workers, the categories that included nearly 90 percent of black workers at the time. Others, like the CCC, operated on Jim Crow principles. Roosevelt’s housing policy put the weight of federal support behind creating and reproducing an overtly racially exclusive residential housing industry.
This barely scratches the surface. To really get to the depths of the naked racism that pervaded the Roosevelt administration, you must read Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, a book that derived its title from a racist minstrel-show performance in which Nixon at a piano and his vice president Spiro Agnew mocked their “Southern strategy” before journalists and guests at a 1970 Gridiron Club dinner. Basically, the book is a study of how both Democrats and Republicans always considered Black people’s interests as secondary to their own political ambitions unless political exigency forced them to bend to the pressure like bosses acceding to the wage demands of a militant trade union. In the sad state of electoral politics in the U.S., very few progressives are able to see things this way. Instead of regarding an LBJ as a boss caving in to a powerful mass movement that amounts to a kind of strike, they prefer to see him as a kind of beneficent father figure.
At first blush, the Roosevelts come across as classic “friends of the Negro”. Most people are familiar with how Eleanor Roosevelt confronted the Daughters of the American Revolution who refused to allow African-American contralto Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall. She persuaded her husband to move the event to the Lincoln Memorial. This particular event has iconic value for New Deal celebrants, but when measured against FDR’s complete record, it weighs very little.
To begin with, the political reality of the Democratic Party is that it catered to the racist wing of the party based in Dixie. Roosevelt felt it imperative to retain the support of politicians like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an open white supremacist who proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938 that would deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment.
While most people are familiar with Roosevelt naming Hugo Black, a former Klan member, to the Supreme Court, there was just as much insensitivity involved with naming James F. Byrnes, a South Carolina politician, to the same post. Byrnes once said “This is a white man’s country, and will always remain a white man’s country” and most assuredly meant it.
Enjoyed telling jokes about “darkies”
O’Reilly cites long-time NAACP director Roy Wilkins on FDR: “He was a New York patrician. Distant, aloof, with no natural feel for the sensibilities of black people, no compelling inner commitment to their cause.” O’Reilly adds some details to this portrait:
Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”
Despite her reputation as a fearless civil rights advocate, his wife Eleanor seemed to have some big-time racial attitudes as well according to O’Reilly:
Following her husband’s 1919 appointment as assistant secretary of the navy, she set up house in Washington “amid a world of people who are having fearful domestic trials . . . [But] I seem to be sailing along peacefully,” having “acquired … a complete darky household.” (In fact she kept an English nurse and Scottish governess.) In contrast to the Irish girls brought in from New York City, Eleanor found Washington’s black domestics “pleasanter to deal with and there is never any question about it not being their work to do this or that.” She was also something of a romantic here, having fond memories of her Auntie Gracie’s “tales of the old and much-loved colored people on the plantation.”
Loved tales of Southern plantation life
These prejudices melded well with the Machiavellian deal that FDR struck with the likes of Bilbo and company. The White House was not hospitable to Black people as O’Reilly points out:
At the advice of Howe, Farley, and other members of the palace guard, especially appointments secretary Marvin Mclntyre and press secretary Stephen Early, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt initially closed off the White House. Black newspaper editors and NAACP officials could not get in, let alone an International Labor Defense delegation whose members wanted the president to meet with the mothers of the Scottsboro boys-the nine Alabama teenagers sentenced to death for the alleged rape of two white women. Mclntyre and Early either referred everyone to Howe, who looked at communist involvement in the Scottsboro boys’ legal defense as a convenient excuse for refusing White House involvement, or turned them back in the waiting room. The president’s men would ask black visitors, whether newspaper editors or NAACP officials, “What do you boys want?”
To further avoid offending white southerners, Roosevelt banned black reporters from his first press conference in 1933 and every other press conference for the next eleven years. His idea of communicating with blacks, concluded John H. Sengstacke, publisher of the Chicago Defender and founder of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, was to tell Walter White and “Walter would tell everybody else.” When Attorney General Francis Biddle “suggested that the President admit Johnson of the Associated Negro Press … he said I should take it up with Early, but I rejoined that Steven certainly would be against it. He has in mind that this might run into unfavorable congressional opinion as they have excluded Negroes from the Press Gallery.”
Early, Howe, and the rest of the palace guard preferred to share racist drivel; minimize patronage for black party regulars; and keep the quest for black votes confined to the Democratic National Committee’s loosely organized and neglected Colored Division (formed during the campaign’s early months to handle the heavy correspondence from blacks eager to flee the Republican party of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression). Called to explain an expense account, Joseph L. Johnson, the Colored Division chief for West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, told Howe that “during the two years in which we have been in power not one thing . . . has been given to the Colored Democrats of this district. Not even a messenger has been appointed. The Colored Democratic leaders of these states know this and some of them were mad and threatening to bolt. The expense account represents a part of the amount I spent holding them in line.” Unimpressed by this plea, Howe kept Johnson’s people shut out.
With more than patronage in mind Walter White and the NAACP sought access to FDR with an end run around the Oval Office guard. “It was Walter’s idea to reach him through the First Lady. We courted her for several years,” Roy Wilkins recalled. “I had never used so much soft soap on anyone in my life.” Though White and Wilkins selected Eleanor early on because they sensed she was a good and decent person, they knew her commitment to civil rights was questionable. “Even after she moved into the White House,” Wilkins said, “there was gossip that she referred to Negroes as ‘darkies.’ ” (That word would remain part of her vocabulary for the next three decades.) Once in the White House the first lady trimmed domestic staff in economy’s name by dismissing the whites and keeping the blacks-a decision that devastated two Irish maids, Nora and Annie. Eleanor again took pride in her “all darky” household, assembling what Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman called, after a White House meal, “an army of coons.” She also insisted that maids and cooks visit the beauty parlor once a month to get their “kinky” hair straightened. This strained their budgets, particularly after FDR cut wages 25 percent as a further economy.
On the matter of what affected Black people in the 1930s on the most urgent basis as Blacks, probably nothing was more important than the right not to be lynched by a racist mob. Rather than cite O’Reilly on this issue, it would make sense to see what the NAACP has to say, keeping in mind the uphill battle it had during the 1930s to get FDR to stand up for their rights as fellow Americans:
The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 would bring an end to lynching. Two African American campaigners against lynching, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, had been actively involved in helping Roosevelt to obtain victory.
Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan agreed to draft an anti-lynching bill. The legislation proposed federal trials for any law enforcement officers who failed to exercise their responsibilities during a lynching incident.
In 1935 attempts were made to persuade Roosevelt to support the Costigan-Wagner bill. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favour of the bill. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election.
Even the appearance in the newspapers of the lynching of Rubin Stacy failed to change Roosevelt’s mind on the subject. Six deputies were escorting Stacy to Dade County jail in Miami on 19th July, 1935, when he was taken by a white mob and hanged by the side of the home of Marion Jones, the woman who had made the original complaint against him. The New York Times later revealed that “subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy’s face.”
A final word should be said about FDR and A. Philip Randolph, the long-time leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who threatened a March on Washington to press for six demands, starting with number one:
We demand, in the interest of national unity, the abrogation of every law which makes a distinction in treatment between citizens based on religion, creed, color or national origin. This means an end to Jim Crow in education, in housing, in transportation and in every other social, economic and political privilege; and especially, we demand, in the capital of the nation, an end to all segregation in public places and in public institutions.
According to O’Reilly, FDR saw the March organizers as “crude blackmailers” interfering with the war effort that was intended to make the world safe for democracy. Yes, the irony was lost on the New Dealers. FDR dispatched his wife Eleanor to lobby with the organizers to call the whole thing off. He also had J. Edgar Hoover send spies into the movement at the going rate of $40 per month, and wiretap the March offices. Randolph and NAACP president Walter White finally met with the president on June 18, 1942 and told them that “bloodshed and death” would ensue if Black people came to Washington. When Randolph said that the only way out was in an “executive order guaranteeing Negroes jobs,” FDR objected: “You issue an executive order here for your group and the Poles are going to call for one, and you’re going to have this group and that group calling for one, and there’ll be no end to it. Now I’m willing to see to it that these jobs are opened up and I think that we can do that, but I can’t issue any executive order.”
As it turned out, the pressure mounted by the threatened March had the effect of finally getting FDR to take some progressive action. On June 25th, with the March barely a week away, the president issued the first presidential directive on race since the Reconstruction. Executive Order 8802 prohibited discrimination in defense industries and established a Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC).
The moral of this story is the following:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must pay for all they get. If we ever get free from all the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and, if needs be, by our lives, and the lives of others.
Frederick Douglass, “An address on West India Emancipation”, August 4, 1857