Blacks in the New Deal. The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and its Legacy

Master's Thesis, 2010

193 Pages


Table of Contents

Introduction .

Chapter I: The Situation of Blacks before 1932..
1- The Rise of Political Consciousness.
2- Black Political Organizations and the 1928 Election
3- The 1932 Election. .

Chapter II: The Legacy of the First Deal
1- A Raw Deal for Blacks
2- Blacks and Labor Unions..
3- Blacks as an Interest Group..

Chapter III: The 1936 Election and the New Trend.
1- The 1936 Election and its Aftermath.......
2-Why Blacks Turned to Democrats....
3- The Effect of Black Shift on the National Scene..



Appendix ..


No group of American minority voters shifted allegiance more dramatically in the 1930s than Black Americans did. Up until the New Deal era, Blacks had shown their traditional loyalty to the party of Lincoln by voting overwhelmingly the Republican ticket. By the end of F.D. Roosevelt’s first administration, however, they tremendously voted the Democratic ticket. The decades long, wholesale attachment of Blacks to the party of Lincoln, with its laudable efforts to support Blacks (Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction) was understandable and inevitable enough. The anomaly was the massive shift by Blacks to the Democratic Party, traditionally identified with its long list of constant anti-Black and premeditated opposition to Black liberation: opposition to emancipation and Reconstruction, and with an ongoing record of all forms of racial discrimination, segregation, disfranchisement, exclusion, white primaries, and white supremacy.

Having aligned themselves earlier with Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation rather than with Democrats of Southern Jim Crow and White Supremacy, what made African Americans switch to the Democratic Party during the Depression era? The transformation of the Black vote from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic did not happen instantaneously, but rather it developed over decades of maturing as a result of the amalgamated efforts of Presidents and Black leaders. The move of Black voters toward the Democratic Party was part of a nationwide trend that had occurred with the creation of the Roosevelt Coalition of 1936 - a coalition that was kept by the increasing interests of the different counterparts during the Depression. This national shift would make the Democrats the majority party for the next several decades including a very decisive margin of Black voters in the balance of power.

This happened despite the paradoxical fact of its occurrence in the New Deal administration of the Democratic Party that had traditionally denied Blacks their basic civil rights. The party’s earlier position and strategy against Blacks and their basic civil rights had not been ancient history. In addition, its Southern strategy along with Roosevelt’s inclination to racist practices and segregation during his incumbency, for fear of jeopardizing his New Deal measures, undermined liberal efforts to advance the issue of Black civil rights. Nevertheless, when Roosevelt’s promises of a New Deal for all Americans- the promise of providing jobs and better life – were not very appealing, the incessant wooing of Democratic political machines and the effort of many liberal Democrats created the adequate atmosphere that prompted Blacks to join the party.

The question of why African Americans shifted their historical allegiance to the Republican Party in the Depression era evokes some interesting questions. Firstly, was a vote for Roosevelt only the result of economic welfarism in the African- American community? Secondly, did Roosevelt and his administration support basic civil rights? Thirdly, was there any motivating emotional factor to boost this vote? Or simply, was that shift due mainly to a rise in political consciousness among Black people and more precisely among Black voters that matured by the time of the New Deal? And finally, what eventually was the subsequent effect and legacy of that shift?

To answer these and other questions, the present study is an attempt to look into the inner dynamics and motives that led Blacks to vote for their oppressors rather than for Republicans. A deep analysis of the Blacks’ shift and its legacies contributes largely to the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement and the future of the Democratic Party in other ways as well. Thus, the current work treats the shift within a “Black protest” framework, by focusing on Black activism and individual experiences within a communal context.

As a matter of fact the allegiance of Black voters seemed to begin earlier before the coming of the New Deal. Thus, the primary condition of the current research work is to set a historical comprehension of Black politics in the realm of the New Deal and its outcome. Historical reconstruction and analysis are important tools used in this study to situate the overwhelming tendency of Blacks towards both the Democratic and Republican parties and the reasons behind their changing sides. Historical examination of Black activism and white politics prior to and during the New Deal uncovers the main discrepancies in dealing with the Blacks’ issues and hence catches the specifics of the period, recognizes the factors influencing the shift of voting patterns and what outcome it might have in the following decades.

Based on the collection of adequate statistics, figures, and charts which, in their turn, after being analyzed and interpreted, would eventually lead to the specific reasons behind the Blacks’ electoral shift toward the Democratic Party despite wholesale exclusion from the New Deal arena. To excavate the broader meanings and experiences of this national shift, primary sources and a variety of voices from the period, as well as witness participants from both sides in the shifting process are paired and examined to discover how the New Deal benefited African-Americans, and why Black voters switched their allegiance during the period.

Within this methodological framework, a number of cases are brought in to support and enrich the study: Black workers’ struggle for jobs and relief is a case in point, the Black intellectuals’ efforts as insiders of the Roosevelt administration were crucial to the shifting process, and finally, the Depression and the New Deal uncovered the Blacks’ grievances and provided the adequate atmosphere for corporate work between white liberals and Black reformers. The case-study approach is used to bring these cases carefully into analysis and to detect their advantages as well as their inconveniences to Blacks. The cases are stretched chronologically through the period. Although the selection of these cases is conscious and purposeful there is an artificial coherence in narratives that keeps apart a single issue in examining its origins, development and final outcome since they occur simultaneously and along the same period of time. Moreover, these cases are interrelated and balancing to one another since they deal with the same central issue of Black electoral shift within the same context of the New Deal.

Historians generally regard the New Deal as the center-stage for this realignment, but they remain uncertain as to why Blacks turned Democratic in the 1930s and what for. While a large literature exists on the Black shift in general, previous scholarship has largely failed to cover the subject from balancing points of view. Explanations have been troubled by controversy and had drawn too much debate ever since. Two main divergent viewpoints had emerged earlier to interpret the New Deal and its impact on African Americans.

The first view had little to say about the racial impact of New Deal policies, and focuses mainly on Roosevelt’s personality and New Deal achievements while seeing Blacks as passive recipients only. Historians such as James McGregor Burns pointed to the inclusion of Blacks in an off-handed way. They approved of some inequities but never capitalized on their effects. They argued that Blacks liked FDR’s personality but were reticent of his policies.

The second view had taken for granted Black exclusion by providing strong evidence of racist discrimination or elimination throughout the different agencies, which was no news then. Historians such as Barton Bernstein noted that the New Deal did not achieve equality and generally pervade racial discrimination. Other historians, such as Paul Conkin, had the postulation that Blacks had been politically inveigled by New Deal reformers, bureaucrats or Mrs. Roosevelt and mainly purchased by relief. Consequently, they excluded any effort by Black civil rights activists and their organizations in these years.

However, another wave of scholars such as Raymond Wolters, john Kirby and Nancy Weiss dealt specifically with the New Deal racial policy and its impact on Blacks. Along with this wave of mildly critical scholars, another wave including Patricia Sullivan and Harvard Sitkoff found the New Deal more appealing. Despite their condemnation of the shortcomings of New Deal liberalism that served only the most powerful interest groups and white cartels, they pointed out the mutual relationship between New Deal liberalism and new left radicalism. According to Patricia Sullivan in Days of Hope, the national crisis of Southern poverty created opportunities for Southern liberals to attempt to change the deep-rooted economic, political, and racial traditions of the South. The policy to remedy the economic problems of the South created a unique chance for those involved in reversing the status quo for African Americans.

Nevertheless, conceding that the New Deal had been so miraculously appealing to incorporate a large majority of the population in a long-term coalition, including an unusual majority of Blacks, it is reasonable to conclude that most Black Americans had found something tangible in the New Deal to sway their allegiance.

This work is an attempt to establish an intermediary link between these diverging viewpoints and to bring them close together by delving into the circumstances and analyzing the factors behind such a trend in the American politics. By exploring the political, social, and economic conditions that marked the Blacks’ determination, in connection with the fruitful activism of some prominent civil rights advocates, it is likely to presumably determine why Blacks voted primarily for Roosevelt, and then later for the Democrats up until the present day.

This study is divided into three chronological chapters dealing with the main time lapses related to this era and determinant episodes in the life of Blacks. In the first chapter, understanding the circumstances that led to the 1930s Black political resurgence is very necessary to understanding the different changes that occurred before the 1932 election. One important reason behind the developments of the 1930s was the dramatically altered demographics of the beginning of the 20th century and its effect on the political scene. In consequence of the concentration of Blacks in big Northern industrial cities as a result of the great migration, there developed a political resurgence that gave Blacks more advantage in political life. The increasing role of Blacks in Northern Black urban areas from the WWI to the mass political protest movements in the 1920s was stirred by the cultural renaissance in Harlem and political activism of Black organizations. This drove the upsurge of political consciousness before the coming of the New Deal.

The depression was another significant point of time in which Blacks had come to recognize the intensity and dullness of their plight, which needed a fundamental change. This initial context is very important to the understanding of the change that began by 1928 and was behind the political shift of the 1930s and the central role of African Americans, especially workers, and rising intellectuals played in the politics of the 1930s. African Americans as local activists who claimed policy changes, engaged in independent Black Republican activities in the period 1915–1930, and helped prepare the way for the drift of Black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in 1936. Analyses explaining this Black voter realignment mainly focus on the 1930s events and Blacks perception of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

The second chapter deals mainly with how the depression had adversely hit African Americans and Black workers more particularly, and how they responded to the New Deal’s social and economic legacy. More significantly, how they strongly reacted to that long endured situation with the help of the New Deal liberal progressive spirit and its color-blind policy despite Southern conservatism and incessant Jim Crowism. Blacks did not possess enough political power to end segregation but they were able, however arduously, to press for equal treatment. The pressure from black workers and Black militancy achieved a certain political recognition and more advantage within the ranks of the Democratic Party. The struggle of Black workers for employment and permanent recognition from labor organizations was not an immediate success, but - as many Black leaders saw it - would benefit Blacks on the long run. The integration of African Americans into the industrial system through a uniform federal labor policy would be of extreme importance to the Black issue. By and large, they achieved a great deal in the Roosevelt’s second term by becoming an integral part of his 1936 political coalition.

This chapter also sheds light on how Democrats and Republicans of the time responded to the call for Blacks’ economic and social rights. The Southern conservative wing in the Democratic Party often acted as a bulwark to the advancement of Black rights and to the efforts of liberal New Dealers to include Blacks in their reforms. The Republicans, instead, denounced New Deal policies as being harmful and inadequate to Black advancement. In the midst of such ambivalence, the enduring racism in public life continued impudently and the rigidity of influential Southern congressional representatives prohibited any chance for substantive civil rights legislation. Nevertheless, Northern Democrats came to notice the growing Black vote in the North and started wooing it.

As soon as Blacks arrived to Northern cities, the Democrats' political machines and bosses astutely absorbed them into their system by providing services and patronage to immigrants in exchange for their votes. In contrast, Republicans missed another opportunity to maintain their once strong hold on Black support. Their machines reacted coolly to Black voters' demands and to Black politicians' ambitions leading many to leave the party, and join the rival camp despite growing opposition and continuing racial mores from conservative Southern Democrats.

The pressure and activism of Blacks in the demand for fair treatment from New Deal measures turned to be a demand for civil rights legislation to end the poll tax, segregation and lynching in the South and to have equal chances in the Northern labor markets. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s administration did little to alleviate the plight of Blacks. In fact, Roosevelt’s problem was that in order to retain his position of leadership, he had to keep the Southern Democrats – who time and again denied African Americans the vote in their states – within the party and within his coalition. Although Roosevelt’s economic programs strengthened this so-called “Roosevelt Coalition,” as they simultaneously aided Southern whites and Northern Blacks, the issue of civil rights, which appealed strongly to Northern Democrats but infuriated Southern Democrats, remained a subject of controversy.However, it never mired the Blacks’ decision to vote the Democratic ticket.

The third chapter deals mainly with Roosevelt’s efforts to maintain an enduring coalition of different factions of the American nation for the 1936 election and his wife’s efforts to include African Americans within this coalition and the legacy of such a shift in electoral tradition for the Blacks. Indeed, despite setbacks, efforts by the Roosevelts and their entourage set up a foundation during the Depression for subsequent civil rights reforms through the alliance of Blacks with white liberals. Some Black activists and progressives acknowledged the trend and became partisans of the Democratic Party. They extremely helped in the effort to bring Blacks closer to the Roosevelts’ view.

In addition, and partly through the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, a group of Black leaders informally organized as a Black Cabinet by the educator Mary McLeod Bethune, influenced New Deal policies. Although Roosevelt made no daring move toward reversing the legal segregation of the time despite the pressure and lobbying exerted by different Black movements and political organizations such as the NAACP , he did invite several Black leaders and intellectuals to serve as advisers to the administration . Roosevelt assured that Blacks had access to relief and some jobs during the worst days of the depression by means of his federal agencies. Yet, his New Deal measures had more-or-less mixed record on Blacks, even though Blacks benefited more than ever before from its agencies.

Although the promises of a “fair deal” and a better life for all people were far from being achieved, Roosevelt’s willingness to consider African Americans as Americans won him their votes and became the trend in favor of Democrats for the decades to come. This was primarily due to the amalgamation of a certain number of political, social, economic, and emotional factors that crystallized the realignment under President F.D. Roosevelt and his party, and paved the way for future activism in the field of civil rights. The legacy of the New Deal had tremendous effects on the national scene since then. It had changed the political, economic, and social landscape of Black America. It also put presidential politics at stake vis-à-vis the issue of civil rights, and became a determinant factor in the overall process of decision making.

The specific actions that followed from this fundamental shift in policy and voting behavior of Blacks were to far outweigh the limited substantive benefits that flowed from it. Indeed, this shift gave Blacks the propensity of understanding the prospects for change in this country’s racial status quo. The racial problems that were not directly addressed during the New Deal became the focus of the ensuing acts in the drama of American race relations - the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the Black revolution of the 1960s - and they made more likely the subsequent development of affirmative action. Both parties became strident contenders for Black vote. The developments that occurred by the late twentieth century were a subsequent result of it. The situation of Blacks and their political as well as their social status are fundamentally related to those developments accumulating by time since the New Deal liberal policy had been established.

Chapter I:

The Situation of Blacks before 1932

The political realignment of Black voters with the Democratic Party gradually accelerated in the early 20th century pushed by demographic shifts and Black discontent with the increasingly conservative racial policies of the Republican Party in the South. The Black voting upheavals of disfranchisement following Reconstruction combined with the great migration of Southern rural Blacks to cities South and North, in addition to the activism of many leaders in the field of civil rights had a profound effect on the Blacks’ shift to Democrats. By the end of this era, the major parties’ policies and a re-emergent activism among younger African Americans positioned Blacks for a mass movement in the early and mid-1930s to the Northern Democratic Party.

The 1932 election was not the starting line of Black drifting toward the Democrats. As early as 1924 prominent Black leaders started effectively deserting the Republican Party and the trend continued until the 1928 election. The alienation of Black Republicans did not occur abruptly during the 1930s. The political experience of Blacks in Northern states between World War I and the New Deal showed to which extent the dissatisfaction of Blacks with the Republican patronage and their policies occurred especially when the depression intensified their sufferings (Giffin, African Americans 226). Meanwhile Republican governments could not meet the Blacks’ needs; Democratic political machines welcomed Black leaders who were looking for alternatives.

When in the South Blacks were living in permanent circumstances of disfranchisement, intimidation and violence, the Southern States, on the one hand, relegated the African American to his proper initial political and social sphere by adopting Jim Crow laws. On the other hand, and as a matter of fact, African Americans could not vote for Republicans even if any campaigned in the solidly Democratic white South. Protest was met with the draconian state of repression or terror - lynching was the most frequent of techniques.

However, WWI ended America’s sense of innocence and with it the idealism of Black conservatives (Suggs 88) who had been disappointed by little if not any interest from Republicans, and enhanced the militant philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition, Black and Tans started to fade by the end of WWI, and came to an end by the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928[1]. Consequently African Americans adopted another kind of political expression in response to the disfranchisement in the South and the Black Republican purge by changing party allegiance. In short, the Lily-White strategy employed by Hoover precipitated a significant enough shift in partisan African American identity to make the national Democratic Party competitive with the GOP by the coming of the New Deal.

1- The Rise of Political Consciousness

From the 1870’s to the 1930’s, the dominant social and political experience of Blacks in the United States was under the patronage of Northern Republicans. The Republican Party was once the concerted choice for Black Americans. The Republican Party was formed on the basis of opposing the policy of slavery dealings and limiting its expansion in the United States. Under slavery, the social and economic control of Black people was total and was fully reinforced by all levels of legislation, from the federal government to the smallest districts in the South. Republicans, consequently, backed the Emancipation Proclamation presented by Abraham Lincoln and passed legislation in Congress that resulted in the adoption and ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, giving Blacks voting and citizenship rights (Greenberg “The Party of Lincoln”). The greatest impact was felt in the South, where over 90 percent of the Black population resided (Orey 196). Fearing a potential threat to their political and economic hegemony, however, white Southerners bitterly resented the Republican-Black regimes that were formed accordingly.

By the time of Lincoln’s election as President of the United States under the Republican Party, the party toned down its protest concerning the slave issue. However, the American Civil War and Reconstruction were the years of emancipation. It was the period in which Blacks were “molded into a definite nationality, a people sharing social, cultural, economic, and political experiences” (Allen “The Rural Experience” 81). After Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical Republicans helped establish the Freedman’s Bureau, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, preventing states from denying rights to U.S. citizens. In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected President with the help of Southern African Americans, who were voting for the first time in a presidential election (Moore 26). It was during his incumbency that the Fifteenth amendment was ratified stating that a citizen’s “right to vote shall not be denied or abridged” under any circumstances of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (The Constitution of the United States). They also encouraged Black participation in Republican politics during Reconstruction[2]. Blacks enthusiastically played prominent roles in Reconstruction governments in the South in different positions: as lieutenant governors, members of state legislatures, speakers of state houses of representatives, and secretaries of state. Consequently, this period established the Republican Party as the liberator of slaves and enhanced the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of Blacks to it. Therefore, Blacks became loyal members of the Party ever since. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, Blacks had voted primarily with the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator (Greenberg “The Party of Lincoln”). Unfortunately, this acquisition did not last long as Blacks were going to suffer more than ever before their emancipation at the hands of Southern Democrats who wanted to uphold their supremacy.

Once Northerners secured their economic and political dominance of the South, Republicans began to retreat from policies favorable to Blacks. In fact, the party moved toward a “Lily-White” strategy at the expense of African American supporters in the South. They left white Southerners alone to deal with Blacks[3]. In the Compromise of 1877, which settled the basis for a period of reconciliation between the North and the South, Blacks were abandoned to their fate and the Republican Party abandoned its Black constituency in the South after the Reconstruction period (Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks 3-4; Orey 203, 207). Republicans agreed to withdraw federal involvement in the government of Southern States in exchange for Southern electoral votes to retain the presidency.

Congress ceased appropriations for federal marshals to protect Black voters, and eventually retreated behind closed doors, where Southern Democrats conceded the presidency to Hayes in exchange for the end of Union occupation of the defeated Confederacy. This compromise cleared the path for Southern states to institute Jim Crow which meant that Blacks became vulnerable to the white oppression (Lacewell 6). Indeed, the compromise resulted in the “acquiescence on the part of Northern liberals and government officials to the desires of the white South to institutionalize its discriminatory and racist beliefs” (Tafari “Jim Crow”). The Blacks were no more needed by the Republicans after 1876 as the Northern industrialists were looking for Southern peaceful markets and trade by approving a “hands off” policy on the question of Blacks.

Hence, Democrats regained power and worked tooth and nail to disenfranchise Black voters and enforce segregation in order to retrieve their self-esteem. The Democratic Party identified itself as the ‘Whiteman’s Party’ and demonized the Republican Party as being ‘Negro-Dominated’, even though whites were in control. Determined to recapture the South, Southern Democrats “redeemed” the South state after state. Soon, a profusion of Jim Crow laws for disfranchisement was developed. The poll tax, property qualifications, literacy and civic tests, good character and residency requirements, disqualifications for petty crimes, and grandfather clauses effectively blocked the possibility of Blacks engaging in electoral politics (Allen, “The Rural Experience” 89). These severe measures were conservative devices to minimize the Black vote and to keep the Black man in the place to which he was assigned. They were also indicative of the bitter resentment white Southerners had for Black Republicans.

Despite their blind loyalty to the party for over half a century, Blacks found little hope for amelioration in politics. There had been a great disenchantment of Blacks with Republicans well before 1932. During the early part of the twentieth century, there was a comprehensible synchronicity between Congress and the incumbent presidents to limit and eradicate federal appointments to Blacks and to ensure that federal officials in the South were sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy (Tafari “The Congress”). President William McKinley (1900) initiated an overwhelming policy of disfranchisement in the South, he was committed to sectional reconciliation, and he ignored the disfranchisement, segregation, lynching, and poverty suffered by Blacks (Orey 203). In 1901, the Progressive Theodor Roosevelt became President, bringing together the progressive cause and the Republican Party.

Despite his initial record of interest to Blacks, the most lasting legacy was the alienation of a number of young Black leaders, including Mary Church Terrell and Archibald Grimke. Although he relied on Black conservative educator Booker T. Washington for advice on racial issues- the event provoked heated criticism by white Southern and Democratic politicians and newspapers (“Theodore Roosevelt’s Record”) - his appointment however was “not to improve the situation of Blacks, but because they agreed that Blacks should not strive for political and social equality” (Tafari “The President”) since Washington’s policy of accommodationism was the most influential among whites. Theodore Roosevelt publicly opposed lynching, too. However, he was not different from the other white presidents of the progressive era. He indeed disappointed Blacks during his second term by summarily discharging three companies of Black soldiers; the soldiers had been accused of refusing to inform on fellow soldiers who were charged with terrorizing the town of Brownsville, Texas (Sherman 256). Southern white GOP officials after 1900 wanted to preserve their grasp on local patronage jobs by embracing Jim Crow. They also passed more anti-Black legislation than it has never been done before[4]

The popularity of eugenics and the philosophy of social Darwinism reached its peak during the early part of century, and racism was integrated into presidential party platforms (Tafari “The President”). Roosevelt’s successor in 1908, President William Taft, was less committed to the progressive cause. Courting the support of Southern whites, Taft did not appoint any Blacks to federal offices in the South where there was local white opposition. Taft proclaimed that the restrictions Southern States had placed on voting were constitutional and suggested that the Fifteenth Amendment had been a mistake (Felzenberg “Calvin Coolidge and Race”). He publicly endorsed the idea that Blacks should not participate in politics, and perpetuated the racist party line of his predecessor (Tafari “The President”). This rendered unsuccessful his attempts to appeal to Blacks by appointing them to diplomatic and consular offices (Fay “The Real Deal on Blacks”). Neither president was able to crack down the solid South. Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft followed the lead of Hayes by also adhering to a hands-off policy.

Disfranchised and demoralized, few Blacks voted these years leading to a greater indifference of both parties to the Black vote, as they would not be held accountable anymore. The Republicans did not need Black votes to control Congress, and Democrats did not care about a Black constituency (Tafari “The Congress”). There was a total conspiracy over the Blacks’ rights between moderate Republicans and extremist Democrats to the uttermost. When there was any legislation to be introduced to protect Blacks, Democrats convinced Republicans to join them in their disregard and neglect of civil and voting rights for Blacks. Southern Democrats regularly acted as a barricade for liberal Congressmen’s attempts to pass any legislation that is meant for the welfare and protection of Blacks.

Southern Democrats had such common values, and principles that made the South a one-party region until the civil rights movement began in the 1960s. Northern Democrats, most of whom had prejudicial attitudes towards Blacks, offered no challenge to the discriminatory policies of the Southern Democrats (Wormser “Democratic Party”), while Republicans continually gave in to the demands of Southern Democrats since the end of Reconstruction. No president dared interfere or succeeded in doing so until the late 1930s. Because Southern Democrats were automatically re-elected at every election occasion, and due to seniority in the Congress, they were able to control most of the committees in both houses of Congress, and oppose and kill any civil rights legislation. Southern Democrats through their influence in party councils and the Congressional seniority system, served as a brake on the pro-Black movement (Silbey “Democratic Party”). That is why no president did daringly challenge the well-soldered Southern block by endorsing any proposals for social and political progress for Blacks.

Within this turmoil and to counter Southern Whites’ hegemony emerged a greater stratification of protest. This included the activism of a new, more assertive working and intellectual class that was critical of the accommodationism of the “Old Negro” like Booker T. Washington (Jordan 10). With the NAACP, the Urban League, emerging as early as 1909, occurred the tremendous flowering of the organized struggle of Black people that played a decisive role in the politics of the 1930s. The fact, however, is that these Black leaders were at the same time outstanding leaders in the Black community and played a prominent role in its councils and political life. Many of them had participated in progressive causes before (Haywood 190). Consequently, they were able to secure certain influence and made significant contribution to Black welfare.

Since Blacks were in effect barred from Southern politics - the white primaries formed the major obstacle to Black voting[5], Black Republicans, nevertheless, maintained their loyalty to the party by keeping “Black and Tan” local clubs to rebuff deliberate political exclusion and to maintain their relationship with the party. Blacks labored mightily to register voters and enjoyed some relative success. Meanwhile, Black leaders continued to debate a long range of strategies to voice their protests as lynching reinforced the legal barriers of white domination. From the old means of accommodationism and self-help by Booker T. Washington, to the civil rights protests proclaimed by Ida B. Wells and William Du Bois through the nationalist and emigration movements led by Henry McNeal Turner. This meant one thing: nurtured by the traditions of protest, activism, and resistance, some work was under achievement that would develop into a social and political resurgence in the next decades.

The spread of industrial capitalism in the North and terror in the South changed fundamentally Blacks' economic, political, and social life at the local as well as at the national level. The deteriorating economic situation in the South, and the great migration were among the essential factors that negatively affected the life of Blacks. In addition, the First World War established a new community among Blacks that was able to share in the affairs of the nation at a larger scale (Franklin 342). Most importantly, the Great Depression of the 1930s established a new Black society with new experiences and strategies in all aspects of life. Many Black writers, poets, and university graduates exploited these circumstances to voice their protests against racial segregation beginning by the Harlem Renaissance and on to the Black working class movement of the 1930s and 1940s. The hardships encountered at the hands of white supremacists, almost infinitely, hindered the most capable of them to reach dignity and self-esteem, and were enough to awaken in Blacks a kind of self-consciousness and awareness of their critical status. They continued the struggle during the 1920s and 1930s that culminated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. However, the circumstances were so hard to achieve such goals at once.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, Blacks were almost extinct from political life as government and politics had become inaccessible and more complicated to most Black Americans. In the South they were completely barred from politics while in the North they were a small minority that blindly voted for the republican machine (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval 426). The profusion and persistence of Jim Crow laws effectively blocked the possibility of Blacks engaging in electoral politics. While the tide of lynching and other forms of anti-Black violence and terrorism reinstated the whites' hegemony, Blacks began looking for ways to overturn the status quo. When all the rudiments for peaceful and restful life expired, Blacks began their eruptive protest against “de facto” segregation in locally organized boycotts and even violent demonstrations broke out at several occasions (Sullivan “Civil Rights Movement”). The social repression of Black people aggravated enormously with the violent genocidal practices of lynching.

Table 1 below provides figures about the number of lynching that occurred between 1882 and 1946. These data, of course, give only a glimmering idea about the intensity and

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Table 1: Lynching of Whites and Blacks, 1882-1946.

Source: qtd in Allen “The Rural Experience” 90.

atrocity of the lynching since these incidents were often unnoticed and hardly recorded. In the 100 years following the end of the Civil War, more than five thousand African Americans were lynched and not a single president denounced the atrocities. Once again, presidential silence characterized Black America’s relationship to the country (Lacewell 7). Blacks’ appeals to the Republican Party remained unanswered almost indefinitely. In consequence, Blacks adopted another kind of political expression in response to the disfranchisement in the South. Such response was a long-term migration from the South to the urban North (Orey206). This migration enhanced Blacks’ political and economic status.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Black population had known a tremendous change and movement from the old restraints of rural life to a new multi-dimensional life in urban centers. Before 1910 Blacks were overwhelmingly located in the rural South-over 90 percent before 1900 (Goldfield 209). They were almost invisible to the world and to the country. However, the situation began to change between 1910 and 1940, and boosted by the WWII, thus affecting the whole structure of the Black population within the country and its politics providing an appealing opportunity for urban and Northern politicians.

The migration changed the nature of Black population in two ways: first, it resulted in a massive movement out of the South and into the North making a shift of population from the Black Belt[6] where slaves had been concentrated for agricultural work, to the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest. The urban population, consequently, increased by nearly 671.292 or 105 percent, while that of Southern cities increased by 886.173 or 65 percent. From the figures in Table 2 (see p 21), it is clear that the main growth of population was in the largest industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest. Second, Blacks in both the North and the South became increasingly urbanized throughout the 20th century. Blacks changed from rural farmers to urban workers, consequently, exposed to new experiences in different situations. The large movement of Blacks from the Southern States to the Northern and Western ones began during WWI and continued through the 1930s. It was mainly aimed to making a better living including better jobs, better schools, more freedom, and a less racist environment.

Once Black communities established in Northern cities, the flow of Southern migrants continued for decades (Lemann 91). A number of forces were driving Blacks out of the South and into Northern and Western cities. Socioeconomic and political conditions in the South made Blacks likely candidates for migration (Crew 34). Actually, Blacks had no other choice than to leave the South. In the late nineteenth century, depression and lack of opportunity in the South sent some of the most adventurous or the more desperate on their way.Never mind that they would suffer at the hands of the Northerners.

Table 2: U.S. Population by Race and Region (in thousands)

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Source: Goldfield p. 210.

Conditions in the North were telling of a more advantageous and prosperous life. Blacks in the North did not face legal barriers to voting and thus some actively took part in the political process. Eventually millions of Blacks were introduced to a world in which formal segregation did not exist and basic facilities, like transportation, restaurants, and public bathrooms, had almost equal access. It was only natural, therefore, that white Northern politicians with large Black constituencies began to oppose segregation and to support civil rights for the sole purpose of amassing Black support (Finkelman 7-9). The job opportunities in the industrial North gave millions of Blacks the chance to climb out of poverty and discrimination.

As Black communities in Northern cities grew larger, Black workers became a significant part of an expanding Black professional and business class, gaining in political and economic leverage. While “Jim Crow” laws persisted and political oppression continued to discourage Blacks from voting in the South, African Americans in Northern cities became an important political force (Horton 85).The movement to the cities concentrated Blacks in specific neighborhoods, making them “more identifiable as a group in parts of the country where they actually could vote. The Negro’s movement Northward and Westward and city ward was a movement toward a larger role in national politics” (Boorstin 301). Blacks moved out from the realm of political impotency into the land of political potentiality.

By existence in the urban Northern centers, Blacks developed a resurgence that placed them well into American politics and gave them a leverage they had never experienced since Reconstruction (Franklin & Moss 342). Blacks in the city expressed a great will to participate in electoral politics at the grass roots level, soon a large number of associations and organizations including the National Urban League (NUL) and the National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP), emerged and expanded (Berry 169). This fact gave them enough voting power to elect local and national public officials[7]. However, they still identified themselves with the Party of Lincoln, and they revealed their electoral tendencies by the election of their own Republican Party members. The trend continued despite segregation and began however to move rapidly toward the Democratic Party especially in urban areas. These migrations accelerated significantly during World War I, when the cessation of mass immigration from Europe opened urban job opportunities to African Americans.

The period of WWI brought with it new economic and social opportunities for Blacks, hence, a new hope for a greater exercise of political power (Crew 34). This hope stemmed from exercise in certain practical situations, in which Blacks lived during the war, much more than it did from any national policies or promises of wartime leaders (Franklin & Moss 342). If the war afforded Blacks an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism, it also answered the basic question about Black allegiance: “Today,” asserted Kelly Miller in 1919, “the Negro is no longer a Negro, nor Afro-American, nor colored American, nor American of African descent, but he is American ... and nothing more”(qtd in Suggs 88). Ideologically, the war’s impact on Blacks was more powerful than for any other ethnic group. An African American consciousness character­ized by confidence, assertiveness, and militancy seemed to emerge after World War I (Jordan 134). It impelled a kind of consciousness for the acquisition of more political equal rights.

The American Black political consciousness started to crystallize immediately after WWI when African American soldiers returned home expecting a warm welcome from the nation and a new life that they long waited for as a compensation for their effort. If the Black “did not expect that the war would improve his lot, he certainly did not think it would be to his disadvantage” (Quarles 179). However, they were disillusioned and quickly realized that the pursuit of freedom and democracy was miles away to reach before the last gun was fired.

Blacks continued to fight in the view that Blacks’ wartime sacrifices entitled them to first-class citizenship.

At the end of the war, Blacks were determined to demand respect from the nation for which they had fought, but they were severely scolded by white lynch mobs. The humiliation continued into the 1920s and made them more determined to, militantly, defend their rights. However, there was not enough unity and collaboration among Blacks to establish a well based, and identifiable community at that time. Strong Black leaders and intellectual activists were still few in number, but they generally provided articulate political and cultural leadership. These militant Blacks demanded respect and full equality from America and refused to take “No” as an answer. They exemplified a militant “New Negro”[8] who longs for first-class citizenship.

World War I spurred the Black community in their effort to make America truly Democratic by ensuring full citizenship for its entire population by including Blacks. Unfortunately, racial relations in the U.S. reached a nadir during what became known as the “bloody summer” of 1919. A wave of violence raged from Washington, D.C., to Chicago and points South and West against Black people, fueled by the potent post-war mixture of unemployment, job shortages, above all, fear of Black political power and social advancement. In response to the war aftermath, African American leaders increasingly called for federal action to assist Blacks.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, a change had occurred in the life of Blacks because the political, social, and economic conditions changed. The 1920s were prosperous times. After a brief period of decline in the aftermath of WWI, the economy soared because of the benefits and immense profits earned from the war. Blacks, as recent arrivals in the industrial centers of the North, enjoyed this prosperity as well, although the living conditions revealed that the city was not that welcoming. As opportunities for Black labor opened up by the early 1900s and throughout the 1920s, anti-labor Republicans in Congress and the White House worked to strengthen ties with Southern whites.

Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge appointed few Blacks to federal posts. As former Senator, Harding was natural as a politician. He remained on good terms with the Senate's inner sanctum which had facilitated his nomination. Coolidge spent much time on appointments fearing racial overtones which were evident in the ones he made. C. Bascom Slemp had been a Republican Congressman from Virginia when Coolidge tapped him to be his secretary. Slemp had opposed the Dyer[9] bill and had been involved in attempts to reduce the number of Black delegates at GOP conventions (Felzenberg “Calvin Coolidge and Race”). His appointment drew protests from many of the President’s supporters.

Both Presidents also failed to reverse the policy of segregation in the civil service that had been initiated by President Wilson despite their efforts in response to increases in racial violence[10]. Some Blacks supported Wilson by the beginning of 1912, on the appeal of some leaders such as Du Bois, who proclaimed: “I was plunged into the ‘Bull Moose’ campaign. I thought I saw a splendid chance for a third party movement on a broad platform of votes for Negroes and industrial democracy” (Autobiography 261), and William Trotter, the most radical Black leader, and co-founder of the Niagara Movement, who believed in and preached for his promises along with a maverick of black leaders and refused to shrink from demanding all the rights they believed African Americans de­served (Jordan 10). The President’s enthusiastic and sympathetic attitude to Blacks changed immediately after his election because of the “extremely delicate” situation in the Senate as he told Oswald Garrison Villard from the NAACP (Clements 45). As a result of the president’s attitude racism was licensed in the White House.

When the Democratic Party won and the next Congress met, there was the greatest flood of discriminatory bills both in Congress and among the States that had probably ever been introduced since the Civil War (Du Bois, Autobiography 263). Federal departments such as the Treasury and the Post Office instituted segregation everywhere although practices were not uniform. Throughout his incumbency, and despite his firm stand against the cruder demands of white supremacists, Wilson and probably all of his cabinet naturally accepted segregation, social and official. But regrettably, although there had been informal and unofficial segregation in the government departments before, now the federal government had approved on the Southern caste system. Although Wilson reiterated that segregation was instituted in the interest of Blacks, it was a catastrophic affair that tarnished his administration record (Link 65-66). Although the experience with Wilson proved the unattractiveness of the democratic choice, the 1920 election made things even worse.

Despite increasing racial violence in the South, neither Harding nor Coolidge sturdily supported federal anti-lynching legislation (Fay “The Real Deal on Blacks”). The efforts of the NAACP to get to terms with Harding concerning racial violence, patronage appointments and disfranchisement did not have beneficial results (Berry 168). By now, the Black electorate grew disillusioned with the policies of both parties. But by 1928, Blacks began to learn to vote for candidates who were not Republicans. As a result, the shift of strategy in casting ballots for the right candidates was inevitable (Quarles 204-205). Black organizations such as the NAACP and NUL were very prominent in leading Black public opinion.

Black fraternal orders, political organizations, social clubs, and newspapers channeled the potentialities and asserted an urban consciousness that became the foundation for the militancy and Black cultural innovations of the 1920s, and opened new horizons for Blacks where they were urged to up- rise and eliminate the burden of white supremacy. Eventually, new movements emerged forming a new leadership on the basis of activism in the field of civil rights. They were more lenient to having power based in the Black communities rather than depending on connections to influential whites (Horton 85). “As Negroes moved to the North and to the cities, they became part of the new urban constituency,” explained historian Richard Sherman. “Just as America had ceased to be predominantly Anglo-Saxon, so had Black-white relations ceased to be primarily a problem for the South…In short, Republicans failed to develop a program which could attract major elements of the new, urban America,” (258) a constituency that formed the core of the Roosevelt New Deal coalition that propelled Democrats into power in the 1930s.

This idea was substantially boosted by the coming of the New Dealers and the role that Democrats played in fighting the depression by allowing a number of Black politicians within the ranks of the party. This new leadership was dominated in large parts by the church, but it also included fraternal organizations, the Black press, and sororities. Churches often focused the mobilization of community resources to provide educational and social welfare services, leadership training, and organizational networks. They supplied collective identity and empowerment to assess critically America’s racial domination (Sullivan, Days of Hope 14). The war accelerated this movement to urban areas where Blacks started to learn from whites the business of making a living and to be involved in many sections of civic life.

The postwar restlessness of Blacks found expression in the Black Renaissance –a creative movement in art and literature that exploded in the 1920s as swarms of talented Blacks from across the country were attracted to New York to participate in the Harlem Renaissance. As culture is the expression of the sum of values and behavioral preferences that make-up a people’s life style and approach to daily activities, cultural production changed as the period of the 1920s changed economically and politically (Allen 168,176-180). On the one hand, the Renaissance articulated the discontent of the Black with his status, and on the other hand, explained Alain Locke, midwife to the movement as well as its chronicler, was an evidence of “a renewed race spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart” (ix). Although Harlem was the most widely known center of Black culture, the tide of cultural Renaissance reached out to other cities with substantial Black population such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. and made an echo that was felt and considered by Black as well as white intellectual circles.

This movement played a formative role in the emergence of intellectual leaders and advocacy groups to plead the cause of black civil rights. Although artistic and intellectual achievements did not win for Blacks political participation and economic parity with whites, the influence that was exerted by the Harlem Renaissance on Blacks yielded more effective results than expected at the level of political consciousness. Blacks eventually changed their perception of voting according to one single line: voting for Republican candidates, a fact of long time affiliation. Nevertheless, by the coming of WWI and the shift of population that occurred from rural to urban life, there developed a new perception of the role they should play in the new political life.

The shift of interest from patronage was tuned to an interest in overall programs for the improvement of the conditions of the Black population. Gradually Blacks came to conclude that the Republican support of states’ rights for “the resolution of such issues as voting, lynching, segregation, and the white primary were fundamentally inconsistent with core Black interests” ( Orey 208). Racial attitudes, they found, no longer followed party lines. Democrats were as willing as Republicans to provide their grants, recognition and assistance (Lichtman 150). Consequently, Blacks learnt from Northern politicians that Republican politicians were no more caring for Blacks’ rights.

As the Black communities in the North grew larger, so did opportunities for the talented and enthusiastic people of this period more of whom became politicians , newspaper publishers, real estate brokers, insurance agents, lawyers, and teachers serving their own people (Horton 4-6). These acquisitions helped them achieve a certain respectability that they seized to present for political positions and hold office jobs once reserved for whites. They could run for office and were actually encouraged to vote (Sternstrom 56). The efforts of the Black elite to uplift Black working people were very prolific.

As they exercised in these leading positions “Black professionals acquired additional prestige, status, and sometimes income as well, when the leadership involved paying jobs in private institutions and in government service” (Giffin, African Americans 222). This, consequently, gave the Black people an opportunity to support and elect officials from their own neighborhoods and communities who would serve them, and defend their interests. In addition, because Blacks became more-or-less aware of their own qualifications and power in effecting local and federal politics, they did not miss the chance of opposing and hindering the election of white candidates who were reluctant about Black issues (Finkelman 8). In Ohio, Kansas, and California, for example, Blacks helped elect and defeat whites who supported or opposed civil rights advances[11]. The power of urban Black voters changed the political landscape and accelerated the pace of civil rights.

Combined with the ambitious and restless nature of the new arrivals, this led to a greater political power that was manifest in the election of Black politicians to many state and local offices in the North. In Chicago, for example, where most Blacks were located, political leaders began to realize the potential and importance of Black vote in their areas when Oscar De Priest was elected alderman, a precedent in the history of Black America (Nordhaus-Bike, “Oscar DePriest”). In big cities and urban centers such as New York, Blacks gained much more strength that by 1917 they were able to send Edward A. Johnson, the historian and teacher to the state assembly (Franklin 342). With time Blacks learnt to seize opportunities and take advantage from their status and political potentialities.

In elections, Blacks became more conscious to weigh candidates by their interest in race issues, and cast their ballots for those who showed will and readiness to help their communities. Although in the past many Blacks had been satisfied with President Taft’s appointment of W. H. Lewis of Boston as Assistant Attorney General of the United States, and President Wilson's appointment of R.H. Terrell of Washington as judge of the municipal court of the District of Columbia, now they realized that such appointments were no more than symbol gestures. Indeed in 1924, when the Democratic candidate for President J.W. Davis promised that if elected he would make no distinction on the basis of race or creed, and when the Progressive candidate Robert La Follette, who ran as an independent Progressive candidate for President, made a similar statement, Blacks began to desert the Republican Party (Franklin 342-343). On the basis of such new rhetoric and activism, Blacks began to change their party alignment.


[1] Many states developed what were in effect two Republican parties, the "Black and Tans" and the "Lily Whites," which competed for qualifications and for nominations at GOP conventions. By 1928, when Herbert Hoover solidly sustained the Lily White delegations, the Black and Tans were virtually powerless. Of course, by then the issue was practically contentious: Starting in 1890 many Southern States stripped African-Americans of the vote altogether (Greenberg “The Party of Lincoln”).

[2] Between 1869 and 1901, 20 Black Republicans from the South were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and 2 were elected to the U.S. Senate (Fay “The Real Deal on Blacks”).

[3] For more details about the fate of Blacks after Reconstruction see Litwack: Been in the Storm so Long. The Aftermath of Slavery.

[4] By 1900, the ideals of egalitarian citizenship and freedom as a universal entitlement had been repudiated. In 1898, the Supreme Court gave the green light to the disenfranchisement movement by ruling, in Williams v. Mississippi, that the suffrage provisions of the state's 1890 Constitution did not violate the Fifteenth Amendment Along with disenfranchisement, the 1890s saw the widespread imposition of racial segregation in the South. De facto racial separation had existed in Reconstruction schools and many other institutions. But it was not until the 1890s that the United States Supreme Court, in the landmark decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, gave its approval to state laws requiring separate facilities for Blacks and whites. The Plessy decision was quickly followed by laws mandating segregation in every aspect of life, from schools to hospitals, waiting rooms to toilets, drinking fountains to cemeteries (Foner “Expert Report”).

[5] In 1923, in Texas as in other states, the state legislature revised the election laws to prohibit the Blacks’ participation in Democratic primaries. When the US Supreme Court ruled the statute a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection, it was rewritten with deletion of any reference to Blacks (Biles 107).

[6] The Black Belt is the name of a broad region in the American South characterized by a high population percentage of African Americans, acute poverty, rural decline, substandard living conditions. Over time the term "Black Belt" came politically to refer to the larger area of the South with historic ties to slave plantation and the socially repressive Jim Crow laws. By the late twentieth century, the Alabama Black Belt became a region of insurgent African American aspirations (Allen Tullos “The Black Belt”).

[7] Prior to becoming solidly Democratic in 1934, the South Chicago district elected Republican Oscar De Priest in 1928, 1930, and 1932. Chicago’s Republican machine was firmly established and headed by William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson, who served as mayor from 1915 through 1923 and again from 1927 through 1931. Mayor Thompson and the machine promoted Black politicians such as De Priest who, in 1915, became the city’s first African-American alderman (Gordon 586-588).

[8] As a concept, the “New Negro” accurately sums up what was happening to Black people. “New” described the migration out of the South, urbanization of Blacks in the Northern ghettoes, and the proletarianization of rural Southern Black farmers. It described a renewed race spirit with a wide range of new subjective and ideological developments. It became the credo of the Black writers, artists, musicians, actors, intellectuals, and their patrons who emerged during this period. See Allen pp.167-186. The term was first used on June 28, 1895 by the Cleveland Gazette. The concepts “New Negro”, "New South”, and “New People”, although emerged at the end of the “Civil War” in April 1865, it was Booker T. Washington’s A New Negro for a New Century (1900) and Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) that popularized the term (Suggs 89).

[9] In 1920, when the horror of lynching was at its peak, Congressman Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican from a largely Black St. Louis District, introduced an anti-lynching bill, which was endorsed by the new President Warren Harding. However, it did not see the light. Even though they controlled the senate as well, the GOP could not pull out the tops to pass the bill into law. While majority leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts supported the bill, the powerful Idaho Republican William Borah opposed it. Borah believed the measure amounted to interference with the states autonomy and helped Southern Democrats kill it. This was the last major civil rights issue on which Republicans were out in front (Barton “The History of Black Voting Rights”; Greenberg “The Party of Lincoln”).

[10] Presidents Harding and Coolidge proposed a commission to bridge the divide between the races. Harding told Congress in 1921 that such a body could formulate "if not a policy, at least a national attitude" that could bring the races closer together. Coolidge in 1923--and again in 1925 echoed this theme. He urged the creation of a "Negro Industrial Commission" to promote a better policy of “mutual understanding” (Felzenberg “Calvin Coolidge and Race”).

[11] In the 1920s, several Black candidates won seats on the Chicago City Council and, even though Blacks were less than 7 percent of the population, an African American was elected to a municipal judgeship in a citywide contest. By 1928 five African Americans from Chicago were sitting in the lower house of the Illinois state legislature, one was in the state senate, and one was in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition Blacks held important appointive positions – six assistant corporation counsels, five assistant city prosecutors, and an assistant state attorney (Sternstrom 56). However many white Republicans were defeated or opposed for their attitudes toward race and for being unfair to Black politicians in distributing patronage (Giffin 25-45).

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Blacks in the New Deal. The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and its Legacy
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Abdelkrim Dekhakhena (Author), 2010, Blacks in the New Deal. The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and its Legacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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