[Marxism] Blacks versus the New Deal
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 26 06:55:54 MST 2008
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-neutralor, for that matter, gender-neutralin 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
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
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
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