Monday, January 16, 2017

The New Deal's Civil Rights Movement

"The impact of her personality and its unwavering devotion to high principle and purpose cannot be contained in a single day or era."

--Martin Luther King, Jr., on Eleanor Roosevelt, after her death in 1962 (from "Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights," George Washington University).

Above: The WPA's "Negro Advisory Board," July 1937. On July 11, 1936, WPA chief Harry Hopkins had issued an administrative order which held that "workers who are qualified by training and experience to be assigned to work projects and who are eligible as specifically provided by law and by these regulations shall not be discriminated against on any grounds whatever, such as race, religion, or political affiliation." The order echoed an Executive Order President Roosevelt had issued a year before (Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, p. 285, citing WPA Administrative Order No. 44). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: The Council of Negro Women, outside the Interior Department building in Washington, D.C., April, 1938. Mary McLeod Bethune (front row, center, with the flower on her jacket) founded this organization of women in 1935. Bethune was also a member of FDR's "Black Cabinet," an administrator in the National Youth Administration, and a founder of Bethune-Cookman University. There is a statue of her in Lincoln Park, in Washington, D.C. The National Council of Negro Women is still an active organization today. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A closer look at the left-hand side of the photo, with Bethune at lower right.

 Above: A closer look at the right-hand side of the photo.

There were many ways that the New Deal advanced civil rights and expanded opportunities for African Americans, as well as other minority groups. The above are just a few examples. Could FDR and his fellow New Deal administrators have done more to promote civil rights, opportunity, and integration? Perhaps. But the New Deal needed the support of southern Democrats, many of whom were open and ardent racists. Failure to compromise with them may have doomed many, or even most New Deal policies (policies that ultimately helped many minority Americans). Indeed, the exuberant integration shown in some WPA Federal Theatre performances almost certainly contributed to that program's demise via congressional defunding in 1939. Southern Democrats just didn't like the idea of whites and blacks acting, singing, and dancing together on stage (see, e.g., the Howard book cited above, pp. 294-295).

What the New Deal did for minority groups, especially African Americans, was revolutionary for the day. Viewed through a modern lens, it may seem like baby steps. But transport yourself back to America of the 1920s and 30s, which in many places resembled South Africa's apartheid, and you can appreciate some of the groundbreaking policies and actions of the New Deal. Make no mistake about it, the New Deal laid the groundwork for the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. It also laid the groundwork for a more fair and just society, which has only recently been unraveling thanks to trickle-down economics, corporate greed, and the fear & anger-based politics of the political right.

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