Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era.
David L. Chappell University of Arkansas
A central question in twentieth-century American history is why black voters, who were overwhelmingly Republican up to 1936, became overwhelmingly Democratic from that point on. Their sudden switch during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal seems odd: New Deal agencies helped drive black sharecroppers off their land, and Roosevelt refused to support federal anti-lynching bills and efforts to restore black voting rights. Roosevelt's only significant concession to black protesters was his 1941 Executive Order against discrimination in military industry, but he was forced into that gesture against his will, thanks to A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement. The Executive Order was at best a half-loaf: Randolph had also demanded desegregation of the armed services (which was not granted until three years after Roosevelt's death). Nor is it clear that Roosevelt's Order really accomplished much: Wartime labor shortages alone might have forced employers to drop all the racial barriers they dropped.
Compared to the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, the Roosevelt era looks dismally unproductive in the field of black rights. This is a major problem for historians, and not simply because of the need to explain the shift in black voting. The Roosevelt administration ushered in the great period of liberal dominance in American politics and defined liberalism as we know it today. Americans tend to see liberalism as the source of advances in minority rights, yet liberal political power peaked in the 1930s without bringing any notable advance.
Were the black voters who rallied around the New Deal acting unselfishly? Stupidly? Or did they define their interests by some other test than the racial one that FDR clearly flunked? So far, the best explanation for why black voters supported FDR has been that the New Deal's transracial benefits for the poor were much better than anything the competition (Republican or Communist) could realistically offer. So Nancy Weiss argued in her influential 1983 work Farewell to the Party of Lincoln.
Patricia Sullivan takes a new look at the problem, setting aside the narrow questions about what the New Deal did and did not do for black voters. On the basis of thorough archival research and numerous interviews, Sullivan gets beyond the "show me the money" approach to politics, where votes, measured by gross demographic blocs, are balanced against services, as a crude payment. She seeks a deeper meaning than most political historians have sought in the New Deal years, and in doing so she suggests a deeper explanation for the conjunction of the "New Deal era" with the beginning of black America's embrace of the Democratic party.
Sullivan focuses on what she considers the true "progressives" of the 1930s and 1940s, the sincere, committed, and courageous left-wing New Dealers who perceived the New Deal's egalitarian "implications." Among this group were Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and his aide Clark Foreman, National Youth Administration director Aubrey Williams, the head of the NYA's Office of Negro Affairs Mary McLeod Bethune, organizers of the anti-poll tax campaign Virginia Durr and Palmer Weber, the black activist and businessman from South Carolina Osceola McKaine, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. These "progressives" strove to realize a vision of true equality and freedom for African Americans. The hope they generated in the liberal wing of Roosevelt's party goes further than cost-benefit analyses can ever go to explain the sea-change in African-American political culture in the 1930s and 1940s.
Though Sullivan deals with the wellsprings of human motivation and with grand ideological visions, she keeps her eye on the concrete realities of politics. The most important "implication" she sees in the New Deal is the way it might have affected voting patterns even more than it did. The New Deal's survival required defeat of the increasingly right-wing Southern leaders of FDR's own party. The obvious way to get rid of the Southern leaders was to empower the vast Southern population (mostly but not exclusively black) who could not vote because these leaders imposed a prohibitive poll tax. Toward the end of the New Deal, many of Sullivan's progressives launched a campaign to abolish the poll tax. This was not simply or even primarily a campaign to effect racial equality, but a campaign to save the left-wing aspects of the New Deal. As such, it would tie black rights to secure, broad-based political interests. Sullivan's realism in considering this angle in the strategy of her progressives should ward off the suspicions of pie-in-the-sky idealism that books about "hope" tend to raise.
Sullivan's analysis could sometimes stand a little more realism. The New Deal gave aid and comfort to many racists, labor exploiters, and conservatives, along with Sullivan's radicals: Some acknowledgment of this side of the New Deal might help the reader understand why the "implication" of racial democracy was never realized in the New Deal era. Roosevelt and most of his liberal supporters were more interested in staying in power than in liberating any particular constituency. Groups that already had power - Southern politicians, union leaders, bankers - were more valuable to New Deal liberals than a disfranchised and relatively disorganized minority group.
The man who did the most to assert black political power in the Roosevelt era, A. Philip Randolph, plays a curiously minor role in Sullivan's book. Randolph did not have very good relations with many of Sullivan's progressives, and he rejected their Southern-focused, interracial strategy. Sullivan's admiration for her progressives sometimes obscures their failings. She rightly notes that they were unjustly vilified and red-baited, but she provides little hint of the destructive infighting among them - including their own tendency to join in the red-baiting. Sullivan sees Henry Wallace's 1948 third-party presidential campaign as the last hope for realizing the "implications" she sees in the New Deal, but most New Dealers abandoned Wallace as the quixotic dreamer he was.
Sullivan's sense of justice is clear. She reminds her readers that the liberals who abandoned Wallace also abandoned principle as they embraced Harry Truman and his impulsive anti-communism. But she does not examine Wallace's own inconsistency on matters of principle. Black leaders criticized Wallace for being inattentive to racial injustice while he was Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s. His commitment to black rights came very late, when it could not have much effect on policy, and Sullivan does not allow her readers to see the reason that many black leaders mistrusted him.
Sullivan raises a challenge to fellow scholars that she does not acknowledge. The separatist critique of black radicals' embrace of the white left in the 1930s, which Harold Cruse so forcefully expressed in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), is part of the basic framework of African-American history today. It is odd that Sullivan - who presents so much material to refute this critique - does not pose the challenge directly or explicitly.
But books that break new ground, as Sullivan's does, can be excused for giving short shrift to issues that have been covered before. Readers who seek an overview of "race and democracy" in the period can supplement Sullivan's new findings with books like John Kirby's Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era (1980), which explores the disappointment and conflict that the New Deal generated among black leaders and intellectuals. The hopes that grow out of past experience - and the persistence of those hopes in the face of failure - are as much a part of historical reality as the headline-generating marches, executive orders, court decisions, and civil rights bills. They are also much harder to write about, and Sullivan has achieved a great deal in evoking them vividly and precisely.
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|Author:||Chappell, David L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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