The New Deal, a reform effort unparalleled
in American history, took shape during the troubled times of the Great
Depression. I gave substance to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vague
campaign promises to restore hope and revive the United States economy. When he
took office in March 1933, Americans had already endured more than three years
of the worst economic depression in the nation’s history. African Americans had
suffered the brunt of the hardship. In the early 1930’s one in three African American
families was receiving some form of public aid, and roughly half the black
workers in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit were unemployed.
During his first hundred days in office,
Roosevelt secured passage of a record number of programs, and he continued
implementing domestic reforms until the onset of World War II. Temporary
initiatives included the Works Progress Administration and Public Works
Administration, which created work projects for the unemployed and the Federal
Emergency Relief Administration, which offered federal assistance to
individuals in need.
The New Deal also sought more far-reaching
reforms. A wave of Great Depression-era bank failures led to the Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits. The Securities
Exchange Commission was established to regulate the stock market, whose 1929
collapse had triggered the Great Depression. The Tennessee Valley Authority and
the Rural Electrification Authority were development projects aimed primarily
at the South and the West Roosevelt flirted briefly with national economic
planning in the National Recovery Administration, but with the social Security
Administration he left a lasting mark.
Although their need was particularly
great, African Americans found themselves shortchanged by Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The social security system, which excluded agricultural workers, had nothing to
offer the South’s black sharecroppers. Many Southern land owners, rather than
share Agricultural Adjustment Administration subsidies with their sharecroppers
as the enabling legislation intended, evicted their tenants and kept the entire
payment for themselves. Overt racial discrimination was clear in the segregated
camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the hiring and housing policies of
the TVA. NRA guidelines allowed lower wages for blacks than for whites doing
the same work. Although a 1935 executive order banned discrimination in WPA projects,
a cut in the WPA budget in 1937 helped bring on the sharp downturn of 1937-1939,
known as the Roosevelt Recession, which jeopardized many black families.
In general, the Roosevelt administration
recognized blacks in ways that were more symbolic than substantive. Yet
Roosevelt appointed an unprecedented number of African American advisers. His
Federal Council on Negro Affairs, known informally as the Black Cabinet,
included William H. Hastie, Robert C. Weaver, and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Politically, the New Deal solidified
Roosevelt’s Democratic coalition into a force that dominated American politics
for more than a generation, but for African Americans the political results
were less clear. In Northern cities blacks achieved greater political influence.
In the 1936 presidential election, they rallied around Roosevelt and the New
Deal. Their support represented a political shift of historic proportions. Northern
black voters became a cornerstone of the liberal-labor coalition that
challenged the dominance of Southern conservative in national politics. During
the 1930’s, however, most African Americans still lived in the South, where disfranchisement
effectively deprived them of any political voice. Yet the New Deal had
particularly important political consequences for Southern blacks.
The New Deal encouraged political activism
among African Americans in the South. In 1934 groups of black citizens
organized in South Carolina and Georgia to try to vote in white-only Democratic
primaries. In Arkansas many black and white sharecroppers formed the Southern
Tenant Farmers Union to press the federal government to enforce protections
written into the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Student activism in the
1930s and the growth of the industrial labor movement often facilitated interracial
alliances in support of economic reform. During the New Deal era, the NAACP
undertook major organizing drives among Southern blacks, building black
membership, supporting voter registration efforts, and initiating the legal
campaign against unequal education that laid the groundwork for the 1954 Brown
v. Board of Education decision.
New Deal programs and policies often
accommodated the racial status quo. But African American responded to the
democratic rhetoric of the New Deal – and the unprecedented expansion of
federal power it envisioned – in ways that created an atmosphere conducive to
organizing and mobilizing for full citizenship rights. Indeed, the roots of the
modern Civil Rights Movement can be traced to the black political activism of
the New Deal era.