Black Americans 1929-1941

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Black Americans 1929-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
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"Let Jesus lead you and Roosevelt feed you" (quoted in Robert S. McElvaine. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, 1993). These words were spoken by a black minister to his congregation shortly before the 1936 presidential election.

Hard times were nothing new for black Americans. After all, Southern slavery had ended only a few generations earlier. Nonetheless, the Great Depression made things worse. Black workers were normally the first to lose jobs at a business or on a farm. Often they were denied public works employment supposedly available to all needy citizens. Individuals were even threatened at relief centers when applying for work. In deep frustration many blacks called President Franklin D. Roosevelt's programs a "raw deal" instead of a "new deal." Some charities refused to provide needy black persons food, particularly in the South. To make matters worse, violence rose against blacks during the 1930s, carried out by whites competing for the same jobs. As a result, black Americans suffered more than any other group during the Great Depression.

Racial discrimination was seen in federal housing, social security, and youth programs. Labor unions, including the American Federal of Labor (AFL), actively pursued discriminatory practices. These activities included exclusion of blacks from union membership, lobbying Congress to keep anti-discrimination clauses out of New Deal laws, and striking against companies that employed blacks in jobs desired by whites.

With First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally taking up the cause of racial equality, initial steps were directed toward racial harmony by the mid-1930s. The Roosevelt administration ended racial discrimination in some federal programs in 1935. In addition, significant amounts of relief were targeted for black Americans. Consequences of these changes appeared in the 1936 presidential election. The majority of black voters voted for Roosevelt, bringing to an end a 75-year period of black allegiance to Republican candidates. Shortly after the elections, a Black Cabinet, composed of black American government employees, was formed to advise the president. But the president's and Mrs. Roosevelt's support did not come without controversy and loss of political support for the New Deal programs, particularly among Southern Democrats. World War II (1939–1945) finally brought economic relief to black Americans. But significant advances in racial equality would not come until the civil rights movement pressed for changes in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Deal was a period of great economic suffering, small political gains, and lost social opportunities.

Issue Summary

Tough Times Turn Harder

Racism in the 1920s invaded every aspect of life in the United States. Many people outwardly expressed such feelings in public with few reservations. Given this longstanding social atmosphere, black Americans naturally suffered greatly when the economy declined in 1929. Those employed were often the first to be laid off when company fortunes fell. The slogan "Last Hired, First Fired" became well known. By 1932 black Americans had a 50 percent unemployment rate compared to 25 percent in the U.S. population in general. With unemployment escalating, jobs previously considered "Negro occupations" suddenly became attractive to the larger population. These jobs included domestic help, elevator operators, street cleaners, garbage collectors, waiters, and bellhops. Blacks were considered fit for only low paying dirty jobs no one else wanted. In Atlanta the slogan "No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job" became popular among whites. Those blacks able to keep their jobs sometimes had their wages cut in half. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, written years later in 1960, was based on the racial prejudices of the 1930s. The story focuses on the courtroom trial of an unjustly accused black man. It examined the ignorance, prejudice, and hate that characterized that period. An award-winning movie was later adapted from the book.


The radio program Amos 'n' Andy, exploiting all stereotypes held by white America of blacks, becomes the most popular radio program in the nation, attracting 60 percent of the radio-listening public.
The number of lynchings of blacks in the United States during the Great Depression peaks at twenty-eight.
President Franklin Roosevelt issues an executive order prohibiting discrimination in new Works Progress Administration projects, one of the first anti-discrimination measures in U.S. history.
Mary McLeod Bethune becomes head of the National Youth Administration's Division of Negro Affairs, the first black American to head a government agency.
Roosevelt appoints NAACP attorney William Hastie as the first black federal judge in U.S. history.
The denial of world famous American opera singer Marian Anderson the opportunity of performing in a private concert hall in Washington, DC because of her race leads to a major public backlash against racism in the nation.
Roosevelt's Attorney General Frank Murphy establishes the Civil Rights Section in the federal Justice Department.
Roosevelt signs an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry, the first such proclamation since Reconstruction in the 1870s.

Depression in the Rural South

In 1930 over two million males worked in agriculture. Of these over 835,000 black farmers and laborers faced particularly difficult times in the rural South. Less than 13 percent of black farmers owned their own land. The rest worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers on farms of large landowners. Approximately 40 percent of black workers in the nation in the 1930s were farm laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. Not only was a declining economy a threat to their employment, new machines, such as mechanical cotton pickers, displaced many farm workers. For those black sharecroppers still working, discrimination in pay was common. White sharecroppers received an average income of $417 a year compared to $295 for blacks. Not surprisingly with such low wages, living conditions were deplorable. Many black families lived in one-or two-bedroom shacks with no electricity, insulation from the winter cold, or running water. Relief through private organizations in the South was rarely available to needy blacks. Sharecropper families would often drift from one farm to another every three years or so in search of better living conditions.

Some sharecropper unions formed to seek better conditions. But these groups often met harsh resistance from the large white landowners and local law authorities. The Croppers' and Farm Workers' Union and the Share Croppers' Union were formed in 1931. Both met with violence. In Alabama just before Christmas in 1931 a force of vigilantes and authorities attacked an entire black population in Reeltown, Alabama, to break up union activities. Hundreds were injured and two killed. The incident did bring increased public sympathy to the plight of black sharecroppers.

As the economy struggled through the 1930s, jobs grew even scarcer. Competition between whites and blacks brought added hostility. The number of lynchings of blacks by white mobs increased from eight in 1932 to 28 in 1933, 15 in 1934, and 20 in 1935. Lynching is a form of mob violence in which a mob, operating in the name of justice but without holding a trial, executes a person suspected of committing some offense. Usually the victim is tortured and their body mutilated in some way. Hanging was a common form of lynching, though some victims were burned alive. Almost all occurred in the South. The number of lynchings finally dropped to two in 1939 as economic conditions improved for whites. However, blatant racism, the most dominant factor contributing to these murders, still propelled lynchings in the South for the next several decades.

Hard Times in the Urban North

The Great Migration of southern rural blacks to northern industrial centers seeking employment decreased some during the Great Depression as job opportunities declined. At least if they stayed on the farm they could grow some food in the garden, even if they were not making money. Still, 400,000 blacks made the journey north during the 1930s. At least two benefits of living in the North inspired their continued migration. One benefit was to escape the racial violence of the South. Secondly, blacks experienced less discrimination by relief organizations in the North.

For those already living in the North, the steadily growing black population only meant greater hardships. More and more people were competing for fewer and fewer jobs. Black Americans organized cooperative groups such as the Colored Merchants Association in New York City to help each other. "Jobs for Negroes" organizations appeared in several cities. These groups bought food and other goods for black residents in large volume so they could get lower prices. Boycotts were also organized against stores that served mostly black customers but employed few black workers.

Blacks faced yet another obstacle during the Great Depression. With husbands unemployed or taking pay cuts, the incomes of their wives became that much more critical. But with hard times for everyone, many white women began seeking jobs for the first time. They took jobs traditionally held by black women such as maids, housekeepers, and cooks.

With the increasing loss of jobs, blacks became disproportionately represented in breadlines at relief centers. Not all impacts were economic. As black unemployment rose, membership in clubs, churches, and other organizations declined. Black society was unraveling and many personal relationships were lost.

Little Relief From Hoover

As the Depression was hitting black American laborers hard, some new opportunities for other blacks were appearing. Black representation in the federal government workforce increased in President Herbert Hoover's (served 1929–1933) administration. Known as a humanitarian and a reformer, Hoover appointed more blacks to mid-level federal positions than his predecessors. He also began a program to fight the high illiteracy rate among blacks. Hoover argued for the equal opportunity of both black and white sharecroppers to own land. However, Hoover's economic policies did little to help most black Americans. In 1930 Hoover created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to turn the struggling economy around. But the RFC primarily gave loans to railroads, banks, and insurance companies with hope they would create new businesses and jobs. The effort to boost the economy did not trickle down to black workers as Hoover had envisioned.

Black American Population, 1900-1940
YearPopulationPercent of Total Population

The 1932 Presidential Election

Hoover's policies did little to economically help black Americans. He even refused to be photographed with blacks. Still, 66 percent of blacks who voted cast their ballots for Hoover over Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election.

Roosevelt's campaign had offered little to blacks. Despite pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Democratic Party refused to adopt a position prohibiting racial discrimination. In fact a stark level of racism was openly displayed in the Democratic Party. For this reason it was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's best interest during his 1932 presidential bid to not express any anti-discrimination feelings. Being a northern Democrat, Roosevelt was careful not to say anything that would upset southern party leaders and lose their support. Roosevelt's campaign staff had no blacks. He even issued a public statement earlier in 1929 denying he had eaten lunch with blacks. Earlier yet he had quietly stood by as President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913–1921) instituted a racial segregation system in the Navy during World War I (1914–1918).

No Relief from the First New Deal

Despite the black vote overwhelmingly going to Hoover, Roosevelt readily won the presidency. Once in office President Roosevelt continued an effort to not disturb southern Democrats. Early New Deal programs did not address the plight of black America directly. Any efforts by him to improve race relations, Roosevelt believed, would significantly undercut support for his main economic recovery measures. Southern support in Congress would be lost. If the critical economic legislation did not pass, both white and black Americans would be hurt. Therefore, President Roosevelt resolutely refused to make civil rights and racial equality a priority for the New Deal.

With no New Deal legislation addressing racial discrimination, discriminatory practices were widespread in the new programs. For example, many of the National Recovery Administration's (NRA) programs establishing standard wage rates did less to help blacks than whites. Many black jobs were still in the South where regional wage rates were established lower than other regions of the country. In fact the program did not even cover many black occupations such as farm labor and domestic helpers. Consequently, the NRA programs in effect perpetuated racial pay discrimination. Even in situations where blacks might receive equal pay as whites, it often meant unemployed whites would replace the blacks. Or, businesses simply ignored the NRA guidelines and paid the white workers more than blacks for the same jobs. They argued that the lower standard of living of blacks meant they could live on less.

Similarly, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act in May of 1933 to provide economic relief to the nation's farmers. The act created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to pay farmers to not grow crops on parts of their farms. The goal was to decrease the production of crops so that market prices and the farmers' incomes would eventually go up. But this program essentially reduced the incomes of black farmers. For those blacks that owned land, routinely they held less land than white landowners. With less acreage available to qualify for payments, they received smaller government payments. Removing land from production was too great a hardship for many. Since they left no land unplanted, they received no government payments. The agricultural program meant that many black farmers could no longer afford to keep their own land.

Most black Americans did not own the land they farmed. This made them even more vulnerable to the AAA's crop production control measures. So they could qualify for the AAA benefit checks, often the white landowner would pull the acreage they had leased to tenants. They would frequently keep the benefits for themselves and not share it with the tenant farmers as required by the act. The number of sharecroppers declined from over 390,000 in 1930 to less than 300,000 in just a few years.

Black farmers had little means to correct the problems. To gain farmer support for the early New Deal programs, the programs relied on local administration. This effort to encourage grassroots support meant those traditionally in power—the white landowners and business leaders—would control how federal benefits were distributed. County committees set up to run the AAA programs banned black participation. As a result the AAA continued the poor condition of rural black Americans in the nation. In 1934 the average income of black cotton farmers was less than $200 a year.

The popular Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) program, also created in 1933, initially offered hope to blacks in parts of the Southeast. But the program essentially barred blacks from skilled and management jobs. Blacks were even barred from the new federal model town of Norris, Tennessee. Norris, named after Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska who sponsored the TVA act, was built by TVA to house construction workers who were building the Norris Dam, the first major dam built by TVA. Given the local oversight of hiring workers and managing the projects, black Americans were excluded both from higher paying construction jobs and residence in the company town. As a result, blacks in the area continued to live in shacks with no electrical wiring. Consequently, the black tenant farmers in the region received little benefit from the cheap electricity generated by the new TVA hydroelectric dams.

Why Not Promote Civil Rights?

Despite the activism of the New Deal President Roosevelt consistently rejected appeals by the black community to correct some of the social injustices imbedded in American society. White supremacy still ruled American politics, and President Roosevelt rightly figured that anyone who promoted civil rights issues would quickly lose political support to accomplish much of anything.

By 1937 and 1938, however, Roosevelt's support on the New Deal was waning. Despite his choice not to actively seek to improve the situation for blacks, he lost support from the conservative element of the Democratic Party, partly over racial equality issues.

Eleanor Roosevelt

One person was particularly responsible for changing the attitude of the federal government toward helping black Americans. That person was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor had long held strong sympathies for the less fortunate in society. But she was especially struck by the uproar caused in 1933 by her simply having lunch with a black woman in Florida. Intent on making a difference in public attitudes toward racism, she took up the black cause for social justice and economic betterment. Her outspokenness on civil rights issues served to greatly raise public awareness of the problems. In a 1934 speech to a conference on black education, Eleanor Roosevelt stated that "the day of working together has come, and we must learn to work together, all of us, regardless of race or creed or color … We go ahead together or we go down together." (quoted in Robert S. McElvaine. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, 1993).

The First Lady used many avenues to promote black issues. She held weekly press conferences with women reporters, she conducted lectures across the country, and she had her own radio program, and wrote her own syndicated newspaper column, "My Day." Also, while traveling widely, she became her husband's eyes and ears, particularly regarding issues concerning the underprivileged and racial minorities. While in Puerto Rico in early 1934, Eleanor made a point of being photographed where the public back home could see the dire living conditions in parts of the Caribbean.

At a Glance"Don't Buy Where You Can't Work"

Black Americans used many tactics during the Great Depression to try to expand jobs for blacks. One approach in the northern cities was the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign. The strategy targeted those white merchants who primarily served a black community but refused to hire black employees or only hired them for low-paying positions. Blacks would boycott targeted stores. In New York City, the Reverend John H. Johnson formed Citizens League for Fair Play. They would establish picket lines outside the targeted store then take photographs of blacks that crossed the picket lines. The local black newspaper would publish them.

This strategy greatly discouraged potential shoppers from crossing picket lines and being revealed to their friends and neighbors. The amount of business was considerably reduced. When this tactic was applied to Blumstein's Department Store, the store finally relented after six weeks of boycotts and hired black clerks and professional staff. This campaign constituted the nation's first affirmative action hiring program, giving hiring preferences to minority groups previously excluded. The strategy brought economic gains to the black communities. In 1938 the New York Uptown Chamber of Commerce agreed to hire blacks in one-third of all executive, clerical, and sales jobs in retail businesses.

Eleanor also used her unique access to policy-makers as First Lady to strongly lobby for greater federal assistance to the black community and recognition of civil rights. As an example she addressed congressional committees, conferred with committee chairmen, and wrote letters to members of Congress demanding that childcare assistance be provided. Unlike her husband, the president, Eleanor also publicly supported the passage of anti-lynching bills.

This role of social activism was unprecedented for a First Lady. Her action led to inclusion of black Americans into the political Democratic coalition, aligning the black vote with the party for the rest of the twentieth century. Speaking out against racial segregation in public places, Eleanor became the target of intense abuse from white racists.

Eleanor continued her crusade even after the Great Depression and New Deal years and Franklin's death in April 1945. The following December President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953) appointed Eleanor to be a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations (UN). As chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights she was instrumental in drafting the historic UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Support from the Left and Labor

Communists, socialists, and major labor organizations joined the push for racial equality. The Communist Party eagerly took up the black cause in the United States. Aggressive public efforts by the party served to substantially increase public awareness of black issues. The Communists staged demonstrations and took legal actions. The party also worked on a day-to-day basis supporting activities aimed at combating hunger and unemployment. However, a proportionally small number of blacks ever actually joined the party.

The Socialist Party through the United Colored Socialists of America also took up black interests. They aggressively challenged racial discrimination in labor unions. The Socialist Party also lobbied for anti-lynching laws and equal voting rights. In the South they organized sharecroppers unions, including the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

In 1935 the Committee for Industrial Organization formed within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Under leadership of John L. Lewis the CIO represented mass production industries that employed many black American workers. The AFL focused more on skilled workers. Unlike the AFL the CIO recruited blacks to its membership. Lewis also headed the United Mine Workers of America, which recruited both whites and blacks. Other influential organizations became members of the CIO, including the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Black representatives attained leadership roles in these unions. Thanks to CIO efforts eventually the AFL opened its membership to blacks as well. By 1939 blacks were well accepted in labor unions. Through the 1930s the CIO was one of the most important supporters of civil rights.

Riot in Harlem

The only race riot to occur during the Great Depression erupted in New York's Harlem on March 19, 1935. On that day a rumor began quickly spreading that police had brutally beaten a black Puerto Rican youth suspected of stealing a knife from a store. Although in actuality the youth was released unharmed, violence erupted. Store windows were smashed and stores looted through the night. Three people were killed and one hundred injured. Considerable property damage resulted to about 250 shops. The incident alerted President Roosevelt to the increasing explosive nature of race relations in the North as well as the South.

The New Deal Reaches Out

By early 1935 President Roosevelt began to take more direct action in black issues. In May 1935 he issued Executive Order 7046 prohibiting discrimination in the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA). Within a few short years after President Roosevelt's order between 15 and 20 percent of WPA workers, or about 230,000, were black. Their inclusion enabled many blacks to economically survive the Depression. Reflecting the low economic status of black Americans, the minimum wage of WPA—set at $12 a week—was twice the amount many had previously earned. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) proved less responsive, largely due to its greater reliance on local implementation. Only about 250,000 black American men (7 percent) served in the CCC through the decade. Some areas would not select blacks for CCC work positions at all. In Georgia where 36 percent of the population was black, less than 2 percent of the CCC enrollment was black.

Sensitive to the criticism that his farm policies were harmful to the small farmer, Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935. Roosevelt named Will Alexander, who had focused on black poverty issues throughout his career, to lead the agency. For the rural poor, the agency sought to end sharecropping, tenant farming, and migratory labor, and to promote land ownership. One of the RA's initial goals was to resettle 500,000 farm families onto their own productive lands. The program attracted considerable opposition from existing white landowners who relied on such cheap labor. As a result the agency fell short with only 4,441 families eventually relocated. The RA also sought to relocate the poor from urban slums into planned towns in the suburbs. This program met the strong resistance of real estate developers. Though the initial goal was the creation of 25 towns, only three were actually constructed and settled.

The New Democratic Coalition

The humanitarian interests of Eleanor Roosevelt and others, in addition to Franklin Roosevelt's increasing recognition of the growing importance of the black vote in national politics, led President Roosevelt to include blacks in the new Democratic coalition he was building. American attitudes toward race were changing, and blacks were becoming more politically organized. Even before Roosevelt began to take steps for inclusion, the black vote had begun swinging away from Republican candidates for the first time in the 75-odd years since the Civil War (1861–1865). In the 1934 midterm elections, Arthur Mitchell became the first black Democrat to win a seat in Congress, upsetting a black Republican incumbent in Chicago.

The 1936 presidential election marked a historic turnaround in party allegiance by black voters. Whereas Hoover won 66 percent of the black vote in 1932, Roosevelt won 76 percent of the black vote only four years later. Many blacks voted for the first time, encouraged by Roosevelt's actions. Just as President Roosevelt had earlier anticipated, however, in reaction to his increasing support of civil rights issues, the southern Democrat support of New Deal programs waned. Many feared that not only was Roosevelt introducing socialism to America but racial equality as well. Some charged Roosevelt with instituting a second Reconstruction period. The first Reconstruction was when the Federal government had tried to force social and economic change on the South following the Civil War. Actually the "second Reconstruction" would not happen until the 1960s, three decades later. But President Roosevelt was beginning to lay the foundation for increased activism.

New Hope

Following reelection, President Roosevelt began taking more assertive steps for racial equality. At the time when no blacks were in high enough positions in government to advise the president, Roosevelt appointed forty-five blacks to various federal positions. In 1936 Roosevelt informally assembled a group of black leaders who held mid-level government positions to advise him on black issues. Such a group had never before existed. They called themselves the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, but soon the press began calling the group the "Black Cabinet." The group would periodically visit the White House to meet with the president.

Biography: Mary McLeod Bethune

1875–1955, Bethune was a black woman born to a South Carolina sharecropper's family with seventeen children. She won scholarships to college and after graduating set up a school for black women in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1923 the school merged with Cookman Institute in Jacksonville to become Bethune-Cookman College with Bethune president. She founded the National Council of Negro Women and gained respect nationally as vice president of the NAACP.

A respected educator, she became an advisor to President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. In 1927 she began a personal friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and through the years greatly increased Roosevelt's understanding of black problems and issues. Bethune was instrumental in organizing President Franklin Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet."

She was appointed assistant to Aubrey Williams, director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), and became head of NYA's Division of Negro Affairs. She was the first black American to head a government agency. The NYA was considered a model of government assistance for blacks. Bethune reportedly helped some six thousand black Americans complete their educations.

Bethune also organized conferences in 1937 and 1939 on the impact of federal policies on black Americans. The conferences highlighted several key issues of black Americans at the time: (1) unemployment and lack of economic security for blacks; (2) a need for educational and recreational facilities; (3) poor health and housing situations; and (4) fear of mob violence.

The Black Cabinet included: William H. Hastie, an attorney in the Interior Department; Robert C. Weaver, an economist in the Interior Department; Edgar Brown of Civilian Conservation Corps; Robert L. Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and special assistant in the Justice Department; Lawrence A. Oxley, a social worker in the Department of Labor; and, key organizer Mary McLeod Bethune, administrator in the National Youth Administration. This advisory group was one way in which President Roosevelt reached out to black Americans. As a result the Democratic Party gained the support of black Americans across the nation, but few tangible results came from the cabinet's activities.

The president resisted the push for anti-lynching laws and prohibitions against the poll tax, two major civil rights goals of the 1930s. He feared losing critical support of the southern Democrats for his New Deal programs. Still the cabinet represented political access to the White House never before enjoyed by black Americans.

Despite the lack of significant promotion of civil rights by the Roosevelt administration, New Deal programs did begin increasing their assistance to blacks. The Public Works Administration (PWA) provided some public housing for black tenants. The PWA even constructed several racially integrated housing projects. In addition 31 percent of PWA wages went to black workers in 1936. In another historic move, one of the first racial hiring quota systems was introduced into government. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes directed the hiring of black workers on PWA projects in proportion to their presence in the local workforce. Other milestones occurred. In 1937 President Roosevelt appointed NAACP attorney William Hastie as the first black federal judge in American history. Two years later, in 1939, President Roosevelt's Attorney General Frank Murphy established the Justice Department's Civil Rights Section.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, created in 1933 to work on public projects, expanded the number of black workers from 6 percent in 1936 to 11 percent by 1939. Photography sessions of President Roosevelt with black leaders began to occur, and civil rights delegations visited the White House. Still, racial discrimination was widespread in New Deal programs. The rise of black ghettos was in part a result of New Deal public housing policies that did not go far enough to help blacks.

Activism Within the Black Community

Organization within the U.S. black community itself increased. In 1936 Ralph Bunche and John Davis formed the National Negro Congress (NNC). The organization brought together all existing black political groups to press for economic recovery. Representatives of nearly six hundred participating organizations elected A. Philip Randolph its first president.

In 1937 the Carnegie Corporation hired Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal to study race relations in the United States. A number of scholars assisted in the study. In reporting his findings, Myrdal wrote the influential 1944 publication An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The problem, as Myrdal concluded, was not the natural capabilities of black Americans. The problem was white racism and policies promoting racial inequality.

Biography: A. Philip Randolph

1889, April 15–1979, May 16 Randolph was both an important figure in the U.S. labor movement and also active in the struggle for black rights. Randolph, the son of an itinerant minister, was born to a poor family in Crescent City, Florida. He moved to New York in 1911 seeking an acting career. He became involved in politics while attending City College and joined the Socialist Party in 1916. He soon was recognized as a distinguished orator. In 1917 he co-founded the magazine, The Messenger which became Black Worker in 1929. In 1925 Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful black trade union. Randolph believed that the best hopes for black Americans receiving fair wages was through union activity. The Brotherhood became one of the few black trade unions accepted into the AFL. After 12 years of negotiations the union won its first major contract with the Pullman Company in 1937.

With government and industry mobilizing to prepare for World War II, Randolph became a leader in fighting for black job opportunities in both. A climax came in 1941 when Randolph threatened to lead a march on Washington, DC, on June 25 to demand better jobs for black Americans in the defense industry. President Roosevelt, not wanting to see such a demonstration at that time, signed an executive order barring discrimination in defense industries under contract with the federal government and within the federal government itself. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Following the war Randolph led a crusade for ending racial segregation in the armed forces. He was once again successful with President Harry Truman signing another executive order on July 26, 1948, prohibiting racial segregation in the services.

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, Randolph became vice president and sat on the executive council of the combined organization. Becoming an elder statesman for the growing civil rights movement, Randolph helped organize with Dr. Martin Luther King the August 1963 march on Washington, DC. Two hundred thousand whites and blacks united seeking an end to social injustice. Randolph remained the president of the Sleeping Car Union until 1968.

Blacks and the Arts

Some WPA programs not only provided employment to black Americans, but promoted social justice as well. The Federal Theater Project introduced new ideas to America, including racial equality. Blacks were portrayed as highly capable, equal human beings. Sixteen black theater groups were established around the country. Though casts remained racially segregated, the characters in the plays were not. A major milestone came when a black production of a Shakespearean classic, Macbeth, appeared in Harlem. Young Orson Welles directed the play. It was set in Haiti with Voodoo priestesses serving as the play's witch characters. The play proved a major success.

Other WPA programs also promoted black achievements. The Federal Music Project staged concerts involving works of black composers. The Federal Art Project employed hundreds of black artists. The WPA taught almost 250,000 blacks how to read and write.

The Federal Writers Project provided opportunities and early training for young black writers and scholars. Zora Neale Hurston wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937. The novel focuses on a proud, independent black woman's search for identity while experiencing three marriages and a search for her roots. Richard Wright, born on a Mississippi plantation, won a WPA writing prize in 1938 with Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of short stories of black life in the South. In 1940 he published Native Son, a story about blacks migrating to northern cities and the racism they faced. The book passed John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath on the best sellers list. Another black author, William Attaway, in 1941 published Blood on the Forge, a book about the lives and hardships of black workers.

Because the theater and writing projects promoted interracial understanding, they attracted strong resistance from white supremacists. The programs came under investigation of the U.S. House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee. The Committee charged the programs with conspiracy to subvert American ideas and beliefs.

A Start

Some gains for black Americans occurred under New Deal programs, more so in the late 1930s. They not only provided economic relief to many blacks, but also increased the overall quality of life. Life expectancy at birth of black Americans increased through the 1930s. For black women it increased from 49 to 55 years of age (compared to 63 to 67 for white women) and from 47 to 52 for black men (compared to 60 to 62 for white men). Black illiteracy dropped during the decade from over 16 percent to 11.5 percent by 1940.

More About…National Negro Congress

The U.S. Communist Party (CP) aggressively took up the issues of black America in the 1930s. The CP fought for legal rights and jobs for blacks in the courts and politics. Though many blacks were grateful for whatever source of support they could muster during these particularly difficult times, few actually joined the CP. One of the exceptional cases of formal interaction was through the National Negro Congress (NNC) formed in 1936. The NNC grew out of a 1935 conference organized by black leader Ralph T. Bunche and civil rights activist John P. Davis. Bunche was chairman of Harvard University's political science department. The conference, titled the "Status of the Negro in the New Deal," was held at Howard University in Washington, DC. The conference focused on the major issues of lynchings and violence against blacks. It also considered the lack of support coming from President Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. The president did not want to antagonize southern Democrats and lose their crucial political support for his economic measures. The NNC brought together a diverse range of people including Communist sympathizers, Socialists such as labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and liberals such as the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The NNC's focus through the late 1930s was on opposition to lynching and the Scottsboro 9 case, in which nine black Alabama youths were unjustly accused of sexually assaulting two white girls. The NNC was also involved in labor and foreign issues. The organization sought to organize workers in mass production industries and join the CIO. The NNC also supported the Spanish republican government against local fascist forces and Ethiopia against invasion from fascist Italy. Pacts between Communist Russia and Nazi Germany caused a major split among members of the organization. It became further weakened with the entrance of the United States into World War II. Following the war the NNC was absorbed into the Civil Rights Congress in 1946, which fought for civil rights on a broader scale. Several former NNC members played crucial roles in the 1950s civil rights movement.

Much was left to later generations to correct. With resurgence of political conservatism in 1938, President Roosevelt had little inclination to push the black cause further. As the economy began to improve in 1940 and 1941, black Americans were the last to get off of relief programs. Jobs opened sooner for whites.

The arrival of World War II opened up many new economic opportunities for white Americans, and eventually for blacks as well. Defense-related industries expanded, leading many more blacks to move from the rural South to northern cities. Yet in 1940 less than 2 percent of workers in the growing aircraft industry were black. One company even stated that blacks would only be considered for janitorial jobs. Such discrimination was promoted by craft unions such as the International Association of Machinists. Black women faced even greater discrimination. They were relegated to domestic service jobs. A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood Car Porters and head of the NNC threatened to lead a march on Washington, DC in 1941 to protest job discrimination. On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt, wishing to forestall the march, issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination in defense industries and creating the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC). This order was the first proclamation of its kind since Reconstruction of the 1870s. The FEPC was given the responsibility to hold public hearings when complaints arose concerning business hiring practices and to propose new public policies. However, since FEPC had no enforcement powers and little budget or staff, neither business leaders nor even many government officials took it very seriously. Even Roosevelt provided little support for fear of angering southern Democrats. It soon faded away in 1943.

Though Roosevelt had addressed racial discrimination and segregation to various degrees in government agencies and government contractors, the armed forces remained a segregated world. The marines and coast guard barred blacks altogether. Activists were continually challenging the armed forces to open up more opportunities, but segregation would not end in the military until the late 1940s under order of President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953).

Contributing Forces

Black Americans had historically been among the nation's most underprivileged segments of society. During the early nineteenth century, black slaves were a key element of the U.S. economy providing cheap labor for the South's agricultural region. Freedom following the Civil War brought little relief, as white supremacy remained a key part of American daily life and segregation became the norm. Segregation means maintaining a separation of the races.

Jim Crow Laws

Following defeat of the South in the American Civil War the U.S. government attempted to force social and economic change in the South. This program was known as Reconstruction. These efforts met strong southern resistance. By 1877 reform programs had lost their momentum, and white southerners regained control of the region. Political leaders began promoting segregationist policies and reversing the few gains in racial equality achieved through Reconstruction policies.

State legislatures created a legal system, referred to as Jim Crow laws, separating the races in every aspect of daily life. This system particularly affected access to public facilities. Anyone even suspected of having black ancestry was subjected to these segregationist policies. The name Jim Crow came from a popular white minstrel show performer of the 1800s who played a black character. The name became a derogatory symbol for blacks.

Jim Crow laws survived legal challenges in the 1890s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v.Ferguson that racial segregation was legally acceptable to promote the public good. The Court's "separate but equal" doctrine resembled more "separate but unequal" treatment. It dominated segregationists' policies through the 1930s and beyond. Racism became the legacy of slavery.

Jim Crow laws required the separation of races in every facet of life, including transportation, schools, lodging, public parks, theaters, hospitals, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and restaurants. Business owners and public institutions could not allow black and white customers to intermingle. Inter-racial marriages were prohibited. Blacks had to live with inferior facilities, access, and service. The objective was to deprive blacks of key economic and social opportunities. They were also deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care. The laws also limited black voting rights through various discriminatory voting requirements, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Whites controlled political power.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), created in 1909, took the lead in combating Jim Crow laws. The NAACP began legally challenging housing segregation during the 1910s. NAACP lawyers soon gained a major victory in a Louisville, Kentucky, case. In Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government-supported segregated housing laws were unconstitutional. However, the NAACP suffered a major setback nine years later when challenging private contracts banning the sale of housing to blacks. In Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), the Court ruled private individuals had the right to discriminate in such sales. The Corrigan decision dominated legal views on racial segregation into the 1930s.

The Great Migration

Between 1910 and 1930 approximately one million southern blacks moved to northern cities. They were escaping racial discrimination, poverty, crop failures, and lynchings, as well as seeking employment in the new industrial centers. However, once in the North many found they lacked adequate skills and education. They ended up with jobs as laborers or servants or remained unemployed. Unsanitary conditions, run-down housing, poverty, crime, and despair characterized the growing black ghettos.

Racism in America

In the 1920s U.S. society was strongly and openly racist. The entertainment media often portrayed black Americans as stupid and laughable. With white actors speaking the parts of black characters, the radio program called Amos 'n' Andy began in 1928. It exploited all the stereotypes held by white America at that time. By 1929 it was the most popular radio program in the nation, attracting 60 percent of all radio listeners. "Darky" jokes were popular, and amusement parks had games called "Hit the Coon and Get a Cigar." Racism and discrimination clearly carried over into the job market. During the economic prosperity of the 1920s, black unemployment rates remained high.

Associated with racism and white supremacy were lynchings. Lynching had long been a violent tradition in the South. From 1889 to 1933, some 3,745 people, mostly black Americans, had been lynched. The most incidents occurred in 1892 with 255 lynchings. Rarely did local police authorities pursue those committing the murders, as it was predominately a white attack on blacks for some alleged crime against a white. Often the actual victim of the lynching was innocent. Lynchings in the South continued into the 1960s with murders of civil rights workers.

With a rash of lynchings and race riots from 1911 through 1916, the NAACP formed an Anti-lynching Committee. The committee began compiling data, investigating the specific cases of lynching, and organized business and political leaders. It also conducted a major fund raising campaign to provide a legal defense for those arrested in a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917. A "Silent Protest Parade" was also held in New York City in July 1917. The march attracted more prominent black Americans to the organization. In 1919 the NAACP published "Thirty Year of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918." However, racial violence only escalated in 1919. The most violent incident occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas, when over two hundred people, mostly black Americans, were killed by a large group of armed whites. The whites were attacking blacks thought to be organizing to combat social injustice in the South. The NAACP lawyers defended many blacks that were arrested. The court proceedings led to a successful U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1923, Moore v. Dempsey, which overturned the previous conviction of a black. The decision provided a guarantee of legal protection from mob actions. Through the 1920s the NAACP focused on anti-lynching legislation.

The notion of equality before the law in the United States, though supposedly affirmed for black Americans by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, still had a long way to develop. The emphasis of courts was still on protection of property rights under the Constitution rather than individual rights. In addition to Jim Crow laws enforcing public segregation, other traditional discriminatory practices persisted. Black Americans had limited access to the U.S. judicial system. The system rarely protected blacks in the early twentieth century. For example, blacks were routinely denied the right to fair trial. One way this was done was by prohibiting blacks from testifying in a court of law against a white person. Obviously, mob actions against blacks, including lynchings, were a stark denial of a fair trial when accused of a crime. Black Americans were clearly not treated equally under the law.

Artistic Advances

Despite the rampant racism in America during the 1920s, a number of black performers became accepted in the entertainment world. Jazz had only recently grown out of black folk blues. Exotic nightclubs featuring black jazz musicians became very popular with white society, such as the Cotton Club in Harlem. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington would become the nation's leading jazz musicians.

Literary contributions also blossomed. Black writers produced numerous works and in a different style than earlier. Instead of imitating white works, the new works explored black life and culture in both the northern industrial cities and rural South. A striking example of this development in New York City has been called the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement. Notable among the movement's authors was Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, and Claude McKay. The onset of the Great Depression brought an end to the movement, as the writers scattered looking for employment. The musicians, however, grew into legendary figures.

Even with the predominance of racism, acceptance of cultural works by blacks was growing in mainstream American culture. This trend may have served to open the door to some black leaders gaining access by the late 1920s to positions of slightly greater authority.

Voting Patterns of Black Americans

Following the end of the American Civil War the nation adopted the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting black Americans voting rights. However, the amendment was only a brief declaration that races should be treatment equally. The matter of actually establishing voter qualifications was still left strictly to the states. The prospect of a black vote was met with strong resistance throughout the South. Intimidation by such white supremacist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan became increasingly violent in an attempt to prevent blacks from voting. The Klan's hooded midnight riders terrorized blacks by burning crops, whipping, clubbing, and murdering victims. By 1900 all 11 former Confederate states made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote.

The southern states carefully worded their voting requirements to avoid obvious Fifteenth Amendment violations. As long as state voter eligibility requirements did not openly discriminate on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," they were not considered unconstitutional. Though appearing to apply to all men equally, in actuality the requirements were directed against persons of color. States used a variety of measures to exclude the black vote: literacy tests, white-only primaries, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. These techniques proved successful in excluding blacks from political participation until the mid-1960s. Consequently, whites completely dominated all levels of government in the Southern states through the 1930s and for the following few decades.

By the 1890s the popular voter eligibility requirements in the South were the grandfather clause and literacy tests. Grandfather clauses required all voters to show that their ancestors were eligible to vote in 1866. Blacks in 1890 had no ancestors who were eligible to vote in 1866 because the Fifteenth Amendment had not been passed yet to grant such rights to blacks. If a person could not show proof of 1866 voting ancestors, then they had to pass a literacy test. Nearly all black men in the South were disqualified from voting. As was often the case, most whites did not have to take literacy test, even though many could not read, because typically most white men had ancestors eligible to vote in 1866. Finally, in 1915 in Guinn v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled grandfather clauses unconstitutional.

With the ban on grandfather clauses, white-only primaries became the next barrier raised to block black voters. Under laws adopted by most Southern states, political parties could set their own rules for membership. The Democratic Party became organized as private clubs in each state and excluded all blacks. Only party members could vote for candidates in its primaries. Since the Democratic Party overwhelmingly dominated politics in the South, whoever won the Democratic primaries would readily win the general election. Any black votes cast in the general election were, therefore, usually meaningless. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) that since the political parties had become private clubs and not part of state government, their actions were not restricted by the Constitution. White-only primaries would continue into the 1940s.

Another common barrier to black voters and to poor whites was the poll tax. The poll tax was simply a fee charged at the polling (voting) place. Since many black Americans could not afford to pay the tax, by the early twentieth century some states began to see poll taxes as a means to exclude blacks from the political process. The Court in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937) upheld the poll tax as constitutionally valid because it was applied to both black and white voters. The poll tax persisted until 1964 when the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing the poll tax in federal elections.

Those black Americans who were able to exercise their right to vote, voted overwhelmingly Republican from the 1870s through the 1920s. They were voting for the party of Abraham Lincoln who had finally given black slaves their freedom. Given their recent emergence from slavery and extensive discrimination by whites, which maintained political control, the black population held little political power. Taking the black vote for granted through the years, the Republican Party actually offered little to black Americans. The Democratic Party, however, offered even less. A black had never been seated at a Democratic National Convention prior to the 1930s. In 1928, when the Democratic convention was held in Houston, Texas, several black alternates were seated behind chicken wire, separated from the white delegates. This lack of political power, in addition to low economic status, left black Americans particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the Depression.


Local Perspectives

Black Americans entered the Great Depression already economically deprived. The introduction of New Deal work relief programs in 1933 raised some hope for federal assistance. But because local governments dominated by white supremacists guided politics administered many New Deal programs, little help arrived.

The combination of longstanding racism and increased competition over jobs led to considerable hard feelings. This situation was especially strong in the South. In many areas black Americans were excluded from federally sponsored work programs. In fact, some relief programs such as those led by the AAA actually contributed to a further decline in the black condition. The AAA programs favored the large farmer who had enough land that he could cut back production on in order to qualify for government payments. These payments greatly supplemented farmers' incomes. The small farmers found it even more difficult to compete in the marketplace. In addition, sharecroppers were kicked off lands that were taken out of production. As a result, the programs ran many small black farmers and sharecroppers out of business.

With little relief coming from the New Deal, blacks soon lost confidence in the programs. For example, black newspapers characterized the National Recovery Act (NRA) as standing for "Negro Run Around" and "Negroes Rarely Allowed." Wage standards developed by the NRA setting wage rates did not meet the needs of black Americans. Most black occupations, such as farm workers and domestic help, were excluded from the program. Wage rates were also set according to region. Most blacks lived in the rural South where pay rates were low. Even if a black person did have a job favorably affected by the wage rates, they likely lost the job to unemployed whites. In many cases the NRA codes were ignored as employers paid lower wages to blacks than to whites. Some relief started coming in the mid-1930s as President Roosevelt became more sensitive to the criticisms of advocates for the needy. Still, hopes were largely unanswered, as it took World War II to bring relief on a larger scale.

Realizing little help was coming from the federal government, local efforts seeking better economic conditions rose in both the South and North. In the South sharecroppers and tenant farmers formed local organizations such as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. The union started in Arkansas and spread to other states. Store boycotts in northern cities sprung up as part of the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" program. In Cleveland the Future Outlook League was formed, seeking to establish a fully economically self-sufficient black community within the larger city. In Harlem the Citizen's League for Fair Play promoted greater employment opportunity for blacks. All of these movements led to opening up some employment opportunities and encouraged a number of new black businesses.

National Perspectives

On a national level, black Americans, who composed only 10 percent of the population and had traditionally been economically downtrodden and politically voiceless, had a major mountain to climb for relief.

You kiss the niggers,
I'll kiss the Jews,
We'll stay in the White House
As long as we choose.

This poem (from McElvaine's The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, 1993) was a popular fictional characterization of President Roosevelt speaking to Eleanor. It was a criticism of Eleanor's promotion of black equality. This prose represents well the racism that pervaded American society in the early 1930s. Not only did Eleanor become the target of such hate for promoting black issues nationally, but President Roosevelt did as well for reaching out to various ethnic and religious groups in building his new democratic coalition. Despite Roosevelt's stance, however, racism was also a part of the Democratic Party. Senator Ellison D. "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina walked out of the 1936 Democratic National Convention when he learned that a black minister was to give the invocation to the convention.

Despite such public views, the Roosevelts were successful in bringing diverse groups together politically for the first time in American history. President Roosevelt won by a landslide in the 1936 presidential election. Seventy-five percent of black voters voted for Franklin Roosevelt.

Though successful in the November 1936 elections, Roosevelt's inclusion of black Americans into his new democratic coalition was more than many party traditionalists could stand. Though popular with the public, he lost the support of the southern Democrats in Congress for his programs. Just as he had feared in 1933 when he dodged civil rights issues for fear of losing key support for his economic recovery programs, his initiatives steadily lost the support of the more conservative congressmen through 1937 and 1938 with his inclusion of black Americans. As a result the New Deal era drew to a close.

International Perspectives

Racism was not unique to the United States in the 1930s. Preaching racial and religious hatred, Adolf Hitler gained political power in Germany in the late 1920s and became the leader of Germany in 1933. Hitler claimed the Germans formed a "master race" that would rule the world. He considered blacks an inferior race. As a result, the Nazi Party in Germany most vigorously promoted the rise of racism in Europe through the 1930s. Black Americans were among the first Americans to condemn Hitler and Nazism. The Summer Olympics were held in the German capital of Berlin in 1936. When black American track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals, Hitler walked out of the stadium.

Black Americans were outraged when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, one of the few independent black nations in the world at the time. Black Americans raised funds for medical supplies for Ethiopia and some even traveled to Ethiopia to help defend it.

U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi once noted that race consciousness was growing in various countries around the world. He called racial values "the only hope for future civilization" and commended the Germans for the importance they placed on it. Bilbo so strongly supported racial values that, in 1938, he sought a $1 billion congressional appropriation to deport all black Americans to Africa. Such were the hurdles black Americans faced in their quest for economic relief and racial equality.


The historic civil rights movement of the 1950s resulted in major legal gains in the 1960s. It clearly owed part of its success to the gains made in the 1930s. Black Americans had been appointed to the highest public offices in U.S. history. A key group, the Black Cabinet, personally advised the president on a regular basis. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally promoted black issues. Segregation was banned in federal office buildings. Many blacks received federal relief to cope with the Depression.

Yet despite these gains during the 1930s, black Americans were still dependent on whites in government to speak on their behalf. Some black leaders, such as Ralph Bunche, argued that the New Deal sustained an inferior attitude in blacks. The New Deal had not challenged existing patterns of black and white relations. For example, liberal whites assumed lead positions in seeking social change. Black leaders were kept in the background. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes was one of those white leaders. He firmly believed that black Americans were part of the larger group of citizens the "New Democracy" was intended to aid through the welfare state. As a result, actions by blacks on their own behalf were stalled until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. What the New Deal did offer was a rebirth of the ideal of racial equality in American public life. That notion had earlier died at the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s.

Changes in American Politics and Law

The Depression era created lasting political associations in America. These included the link between liberalism and the quest for social justice, and the link between economic conservatism and racism. Perhaps most importantly, beginning in the 1930s the federal government became a key factor in civil rights issues. The Black Cabinet and President Roosevelt's appointees, including Ickes, Hopkins, Alexander, and Williams, brought the recognition of civil rights issues into the New Deal.

One of the lasting legacies of Roosevelt to the black cause was the appointment of eight Supreme Court justices during his lengthy tenure as president. Seven of these justices became advocates for civil rights. They set the stage for the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s that made landmark decisions directly affecting racial equality.

Social Progress Stalled

Despite important gains made in public attitudes and positions of blacks in government, some viewed the New Deal era as a setback in the struggle for civil rights. The growing momentum within the black community of the early twentieth century was sidetracked by the country's urgent pursuit of economic recovery programs. As a result, blacks would have to wait until after World War II to pursue racial justice. Changes in public attitude translated to little concrete change in New Deal programs. Black sharecroppers, unskilled laborers, and domestic helpers still had twice the unemployment rate as whites. Jim Crow laws and public segregation continued for twenty more years.

The onset of World War II forced President Roosevelt and the federal government to confront race issues more directly. The hiring quota system Secretary Ickes introduced in the WPA set a precedent for the wartime Fair Employment Practices Commission. It also served as a model for civil rights legislation and court decisions of the 1960s and 1970s. Job opportunities for blacks boomed through the war years, only to decline afterwards.

Despite the stalled momentum for sweeping social change, two lasting changes brought by the New Deal era were the increase in black expectations of racial equality and the decrease in open white hostility. White supremacy was far less tolerated in public.

Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement grew following World War II, building on the factors of increased public awareness of black issues, increased black expectations, and the role of the federal government. The movement became a "freedom struggle" by black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. The goal was equality with white Americans. Equality meant freedom from discrimination in employment, education, and housing, the right to vote, and equal access to public facilities such as theaters, inns, and restaurants.

The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education had proved the spark for change. The ruling directly struck down segregation in public schools. But the historic ruling also closed the door on the "separate-but-equal" doctrine supporting Jim Crow laws.

Black activists sought to extend the Brown ruling and racial reform to other aspects of life. In 1955 Rosa Parks, a secretary for the NAACP, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white man as required by city law. This incident led to the rise of a young 27-year old preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. King preached nonviolent, civil disobedience tactics. This strategy contrasted to both the Ku Klux Klan's violent terrorism and the NAACP's quiet legal approach.

King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to provide leadership to the movement. But white resistance to racial equality led to years of conflict. Highly publicized confrontations followed in 1957 at Little Rock, Arkansas, and in 1962 at the University of Mississippi.

The high point of the civil rights movement came on August 28, 1963 when 250,000 thousand persons marched on Washington, DC. They urged the federal government to support desegregation and protect black voting rights. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, preaching nonviolent action. Congress responded with passage of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in public places. This action came almost three decades after President Roosevelt had issued his limited order addressing discrimination in federal office buildings.

White violence, including assassination of a NAACP leader and murders of civil rights activists, followed. Mounted police using tear gas, dogs, and clubs attacked black protest marches in the South. Urban riots across the country in 1965 called attention to the plight of blacks. In reaction Congress added the Voting Rights Act in 1965 expanding voting rights of blacks.

King, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his leadership role in the movement, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Race riots erupted in the following week in 125 cities, as black America's most effective leader was gone. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, banning racial discrimination in most housing, six days after King's assassination. This bill corrected the housing discrimination that persisted from the New Deal's housing programs. However, with its leader gone and unity no longer evident, the civil rights movement's national thrust faded. The movement had altered the fundamental relationship between state and federal governments and compelled the federal courts to more effectively protect constitutional civil liberties. The federal role in civil rights issues begun in the 1930s was further expanded. Many others soon benefited from the movement's gains in social justice, including women, the disabled, and other victims of discrimination who had little voice in the 1930s.

Notable People

Will Alexander (1884–1956). A white Methodist minister in Tennessee, Alexander became increasingly concerned with rural black poverty. He left the ministry to become executive director of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in 1919. He then became president of Dillard University in New Orleans in 1930. In 1935 Alexander was appointed assistant administrator of the New Deal's Resettlement Administration to give aid to poor farmers. When the agency became part of the new Farm Security Administration, Roosevelt appointed Alexander to lead the new agency. Alexander left the agency in 1940.

Marian Anderson (1897–1993). Anderson was a world famous black American contralto singer. In 1925, early in her career, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Anderson traveled throughout Europe in the early 1930s, earning great praise for her performances. She became recognized as one of the world's top opera singers. In 1935 she returned to the United States to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In March of 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to give a concert in a private hall in Washington, DC. In reaction, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with others, resigned from the organization.

They had federal officials arrange for Anderson to give a free concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday instead. The denial of Anderson to perform at the private hall triggered a major reaction against racism in the nation. Tens of thousands of letters and telegrams were sent to DAR offices in protest. An estimated crowd of over 75,000 attended the outdoor event. According to a nationwide Gallup poll, Eleanor's resignation from DAR received a 67 percent approval from the public.

Given that a decade earlier blacks had been roped off across the road at the dedication of the memorial, the integrated concert crowd reflected a major change in public attitudes through the 1930s. In 1955 Anderson became the first black to perform at New York's Metropolitan Opera. In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) named her as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. President Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963–1969) awarded Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and she received a Grammy music award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.

William H. Hastie (1904–1976). Hastie earned a law degree from Harvard University and taught at Howard University in Washington, DC. He worked on many NAACP legal cases. Roosevelt appointed Hastie to a lawyer position in the Interior Department, and he became part of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet." In 1937 Roosevelt appointed Hastie the first black federal judge in American history, as district court judge in the Virgin Islands. In 1939 he returned to Howard University as law school dean. During World War II he served as a civilian aide to the secretary of war. In 1946 President Harry Truman (served 1945–1953) appointed Hastie governor of the Virgin Islands, and in 1949 he was appointed judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Harold Ickes (1874–1952). A social activist his entire career, Ickes served as secretary of interior to Roosevelt. He had earlier been president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. Ickes was Roosevelt's key advisor on black issues. Ickes, through his own initiative, took measures to end segregation in the Interior Department by hiring black lawyers, engineers, and architects. Ickes established the first minority quota hiring system. He demanded that all Public Works Administration contractors employ black workers in proportion to the number of blacks living in the local area of the particular project.

Joe Louis (1914–1981). Louis, a large black man born in Alabama and raised in Detroit, became a professional boxer in 1934. He won the heavyweight title in June 1937 by knocking out white boxer James J. Braddock. The rise of Louis as a champion prize-fighter made him a folk hero among black Americans during a difficult period. His victories over whites, particularly German fighters, gave a great moral lift to black Americans in their quest to gain racial equality. Louis held the world heavyweight boxing championship longer than any other boxer. He retired from the ring in 1949 and later had an unsuccessful comeback attempt.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Eleanor married Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905 and raised five children while her husband chased political ambitions. Following volunteer work during World War I, including Red Cross activities, Eleanor chose the course of social reformer and political activist and became active in the Democratic Party. She supported child labor laws, legislation to protect women, and social services to mothers and children. In the 1930s Eleanor took up the cause of black Americans, promoting anti-lynching laws and bringing NAACP leaders to the White House. She became very popular among the black population for promoting their issues at such a high level.

Robert C. Weaver (1907–1997). Roosevelt appointed Weaver in 1933 as an advisor on black economic problems and a member of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet." He had earlier earned a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. From 1937 to 1940, he served as special assistant for the U.S. Housing Authority. Weaver became the first black cabinet member in U.S. history in 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson named him secretary of housing and urban development. In 1969 he became president of Bernard M. Baruch College.

Walter White (1893–1956). After establishing the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White became executive secretary of the organization from 1931 to 1955. During the 1930s White spent considerable effort seeking passage of an anti-lynching law, but without success. He also lobbied for voting rights, school desegregation, and many other civil rights issues. White kept ongoing communications with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. As a national spokesman for black issues, White was successful in raising public awareness of the plight of black Americans and laying the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Primary Sources

Racial Discrimination During the New Deal

During the Great Depression, black Americans not only faced racial discrimination in employment, but in economic relief programs as well. They often received inferior food and goods, if any at all. Evelyn Finn of Louisiana reminisced a number of years later, after the end of the New Deal. Finn's memories are recounted in Studs Terkel's oral history volume on the Great Depression, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1986, p. 319).

Suggested Research Topics

  1. Imagine being a black American living in the early twentieth century in the United States. Describe the benefits you might expect from the New Deal programs.
  2. What were the lasting effects of the New Deal for black Americans and the dream of social justice?
  3. Conduct more research on people like William H. Hastie, Marian Anderson, and Mary McLeod Bethune to find more out about their lives during the Great Depression and beyond. What types of struggles were unique to them because of their race?



Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. "Or Does It Explode?": Harlem in the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

"Jim Crow Concert Hall," Time, March 6, 1939.

Kelley, Robin D.G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kirby, John B. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times Books, 1993.

McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Nordin, Dennis S. The New Deal's Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

"Only Decent Manner," Time, March 20, 1939.

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue, the Depression Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Further Reading

Appiah, Kwame A., and Henry L. Gates, eds. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.

Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

Mead, Christopher. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Stewart, Jeffrey C. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

See Also

Effects of the Great Depression—LBJ's Great Society