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The extent to which the New Deal was effective for African Americans has been a topic of dispute among historians. The New Deal was a series of emergency programs put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, aiming to establish relief and recovery in America, following the Great Depression. The New Deal marks a significant shift in American history: It changed the role of the federal government, the power of the presidency, and the relationship of the American people with their government.
Notably, under the New Deal African Americans faced advancements and challenges both socially and politically. The question that arises from historical interpretations mainly focuses on the role of the government and the extent to which Roosevelt was willing to advance the position of African Americans, examining both his personal commitments and the role of his administration. The three historians which focus on these issues are McMahon, Badger, and Sitkoff, each focusing on different factors. McMahon puts forward the argument that Roosevelt was instrumental in shaping radical change through his political strategy and constitutional decisions.
On the other hand, Badger argues that Conservatives in Congress prevented any progress and reluctant to challenge southern attitudes. He viewed the New Deal as a mechanism that helped people survive until World War Two, which was the main reason behind the transformation of the American economy. Occupying the middle ground, Sitkoff demonstrates the limitations of the New Deal but stresses the improvement after 1935 and the emergence of civil rights as a national issue. Roosevelt’s attempts, through the New Deal and Supreme Court, were able to, in the long run, give African Americans their rights through the law.
The interpretations of Badger and Sitkoff are most plausible; whilst Roosevelt was able to support African Americans, although limited, ultimately it was WW2 that was able to bring about economic prospects for African Americans. Despite attempts through the New Deal, Roosevelt was limited in intervening enough to stimulate a full recovery from the Great Depression. World War Two provided employment opportunities for African Americans in the armed forces, coupled with A. Philip Randolph’s attempt to desegregate the army, arguably proved a more substantial advancement than measures introduced under the New Deal. Clearly, there is a divergence in opinion on how far Roosevelt’s administration was able to advance the position of African Americans socially, politically, and economically.
One area of disagreement between historians is the extent of the role the President played in administering New Deal policies and consideration towards African Americans. Clearly, McMahon outlines that Roosevelt was driven by internal demands within the administration rather than race itself. McMahon’s main focus lies in revealing the origins of court decisions under Roosevelt which supported the plight of African Americans; He argues that Roosevelt’s administration played a pivotal role in the Supreme Court’s development to committing to racial equality, culminating in its landmark decision Brown v Board of Education: ‘Indeed by 1944, it was clear that the newly created Roosevelt Court would practice a new style of progressivism when addressing the issue of race’. This is most evident in the appointments to the Supreme Court and the Justice Department’s effort to extend and protect the rights of African-Americans. As McMahon states ‘The choice of Alabama Black as his first nominee and Kentucky’s Stanley Reed as his second potentially had consequences for the development of liberalism in the South’.
This serves to outline that Roosevelt clearly had an agenda to liberalize politics in the South, which maintained its power by using the lynch law and poll taxes to exclude African-Americans and the poor from the franchise. McMahon outlines that ‘Of the nine men FDR either elevated or appointed to the high bench, eight were unquestionably progressives’: A significant example is Justice Frank Murphy, a liberal Democrat, appointed by Roosevelt whose deep hatred of racial and religious prejudice was evident. These decisions made by Roosevelt culminated in the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education which lay the groundwork for the process towards Civil Rights for everyone, especially African Americans. McMahon sets out that ‘rather than promoting legislation that would forever destroy his [Roosevelt] alliance with powerful southerners, he sought to reconstitute the federal courts in a manner that would advance the agenda of racial progressives’.
This is considered to be a clever tactic by Roosevelt in ensuring possible change as his attempts were clearly constricted by conservatives within his administration. However, this idea is challenged by historian Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff who argues that ‘it would take time before African Americans could perceive tangible effects of judicial reform’. This demonstrates that whilst the race was not dismissed by the Roosevelt administration, it certainly was not their priority and to some extent, it could be argued that Roosevelt simply was not sympathetic to race issues enough to bring about radical change. Therefore, McMahon clearly holds the view that Roosevelt was able to deliver an effective New Deal and Civil Rights progress, not through legislation but political and constitutional strategy, allowing him to advocate racial equality in an indirect manner, which can be questioned.
On the other hand, Badger holds the view that Roosevelt’s role in supporting African Americans through the New Deal was ultimately insignificant and ineffective. Badger asserts that ‘the New Deal, conscious of the need to maintain southern congressional support, did little for south black civil rights’. Following the New Deal, the economic decline in the South was exacerbated rather than improved with economic and political inequality increasing. Badger reinforces this claiming that ‘New Deal programs in the South routinely discriminated against blacks and enforced segregation’. Although New Deal agencies such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Youth Administration ensured that a substantial portion of their workforces was filled with black workers, this did little to aid African Americans after the Great Depression. For example, the Civil Conservation Corps enrolled African American men into its programs but at an unequal ratio to whites, keeping black workers in segregated camps, and unable to attain high position jobs. Similarly, the Federal Housing Act provided new home loan opportunities to white Americans, whilst at the same time denying various services to African Americans, with the aim of segregating them into urban ghettos. Despite Roosevelt’s aims, the South was unwilling to endorse his progressive aims as they viewed it as a violation of traditional attitudes and values towards race and politics.
Evidently, conservative congressional opposition and reliance on local governments which are viewed to have functioned in undemocratic ways, inconsistent with New Deal beliefs, rendered these programs ineffective. Badger notes that ‘By 1940 blacks were still economically dependent, politically impotent and rigidly segregated’. African Americans remained to be ‘last hired, first fired’, as priority was given to white Americans as reinforced in the popular degrading slogan “No Jobs for [Blacks] Until Every White Man Has a Job”. Although Badger and McMahon have different focuses, the South and Supreme Court, it is evident from both interpretations that Roosevelt did not advocate enough for equality, especially through his New Deal projects, in order for substantial change to take place. McMahon holds the view that by appointing liberals, Roosevelt ensured that the Supreme Court would be sympathetic and willing to improve civil rights. For Badger, New Deal policies were not targeted enough in the South, maintaining the traditional patterns of racial segregation and economic stagnation. Despite McMahons claim that Roosevelt aimed to liberalize the South, Badger’s historical investigation seems to prove that the South remained the most disadvantaged part of the nation, characterized by deep segregation and hostility between the races.
In line with Badger’s perspective, Sitkoff agrees that Roosevelt’s administration initially did little for African Americans. Sitkoff outlines that the majority of most programs of the First New Deal (1933-35) discriminated against and exploited African Americans: ‘Certainly the AAA did nothing to lift the Afro-American from the lowest rungs on the agricultural ladder or to insists that black farmers be treated equally with whites’. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) aimed to address the issue of overproduction by cutting farm production and increasing food prices, which proved harmful to small African Americans farmers. Similarly, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which aimed to build a series of dams and transmission lines, did not appoint African Americans to any clerical or office positions. The TVA took in the smallest proportion of African Americans workers compared to other programs, paid them significantly less than whites, and refused to allow them to live in the newly built areas. This reinforces that the New Deal programs may have appeared to provide support to minorities but in reality, continued to perpetuate discrimination. Like Badger, Sitkoff believes that Roosevelt failed to address anti-lynching legislation, police violence against African Americans, and systematic segregation. Sitkoff states ‘Certainly racial violence-plagued blacks as viciously in the North as in the South.
Whites lynched Negroes in almost every major city above the Mason-Dixon line in the Progressive era’. Sitkoff acknowledges the difficulty of addressing the problems in the South and being able to bring about substantial improvements. Sitkoff outlines that ‘because of continuing white indifference and black impotency, the NAACP could do nothing to affect the racial policies to the Southern states and local governments or to compel the necessary corrective actions by the national government’. This can be seen clearly with the attempts to pass anti-lynching bills which was a prominent issue: From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States, mainly in the Southern states as a means to intimidate African Americans and enforce white supremacy. Despite communications between NAACP leader Walter White and Eleanor Roosevelt to change attitudes to lynching, they were unable to persuade Roosevelt who relied heavily on Southern Democrats to pass his New Deal legislation. Clearly, Roosevelt’s New Deal program and administration allowed white supremacy and segregation to rule the South which would take a long time to eradicate.
However, Sitkoff’s interpretation demonstrates that attitudes towards race changed among liberal New Deal figures throughout the 1930s which stemmed as a result of the decline of Southern voters to the Democratic party, the significance of figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, and changes to the Cabinet. Sitkoff highlights that ‘the Black Cabinet forged a critical link between the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement’. A significant member of the Cabinet, who advocated and represented minority rights was Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune Cookman College. Bethune was the head of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, concerned with employment opportunities for young African Americans. In her view, the New Deal had created a new opportunity for African Americans to gain access to the White House and positions within the government during Roosevelt’s presidency, which they had been previously denied. Notably, Harold Ickes also played an important role in aiming to establish change within the government to improve the lives of African Americans.
As Secretary of the Interior, ‘Ickes ended segregation in the department cafeterias and restrooms in 1933’ and allowed African Americans to occupy ‘at least one-third of all housing units built by the Public Works Administration (PWA)’. Icke’s campaigned for progressive policies within Roosevelt’s administration especially trying to remove barriers to employment for African Americans, viewing the ‘New Deal as a potential vehicle in the battle against discrimination’, as noted by Sklaroff. Additionally, Sitkoff addresses the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, in increasing confidence in African Americans and working towards their inclusion in all areas of life including, government, education, and employment. By associating herself with prominent leaders and organizations, Eleanor Roosevelt helped create changes in the National Youth Administration, Public Works Administration, and National Labour Relations Act, aiming to eliminate unfair treatment and exploitation of African Americans. She advocated civil rights for African Americans, as well as championing the rights of women, the poor, and workers.
Although Roosevelt’s administration was unable to provide immediate relief, in some ways, it was able to increase black awareness and highlight the disparity between black and white Americans which carried on throughout the Civil Rights Movement. This view is supported by historian David Woolner who argues that ‘the Roosevelt era represented “the first time in their history” that African Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government’, bringing race to the forefront of politics as something which needed to be addressed. Despite the inequalities in the New Deal housing, agricultural and economic programs, African Americans had opportunities to obtain employment, even in areas previously unattainable. Although Roosevelt failed to directly address the needs of black communities, the rise of key figures becoming more outspoken on race issues, government attempts of inclusion, and mobilization of the national organization demonstrate, as Sitkoff argues, that the later years of the New Deal had an essential influence on African Americans.
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