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’s Failure To Aid African Americans Essay, Research Paper

The New Deal’s Failure to Aid African Americans

President Roosevelt’s New Deal program during the 1930’s failed to aid impoverished African-American citizens. The New Deal followed a long, historical chronology of American failures in attempts to ensure economic prosperity and racial equality. During the nearly seventy years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States faced a series of economic depressions, unmotivated Congress,’ and a series of mediocre presidents. With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, few presidents were able to enact anti-depression mechanisms and minimize unemployment. The America of the 1920’s was a country at its lowest economic and social stature facing a terrible depression and increasing racial turmoil. Author and historian Harvey Wish described the situation as follows:

The decade of the 1920’s was an era of intolerance. Labor strife, government repression of political radicals, anti-foreign paranoia, intensified by war and legalized in the racial quotas of the 1924 Immigration Act, were only a few examples of this intolerance. For American blacks, it was axiomatic that any measurable shift to the right in social and political opinion, would bring with it increased difficulties for their race. The 20’s were no exception.

Lingering and pervasive racism found in FDR’s Cabinet, Congress, and New Deal administrators, contributed to a failure of the Administration’s grand scheme to raise America’s poor, particularly African-Americans, from the depths of despair. Harold Ickes, President Roosevelt’s powerful Secretary of the Interior and the Administration’s leading advocate for African-American relief, believed that the problems faced by poor blacks were inseparable from the problems facing all Americans. While the New Deal was designed to aid all suffering Americans, in practice, the well-intended programs could not ensure economic and racial fairness in the delivery of relief. Instead, most early New Deal programs specifically sanctioned discrimination against African-Americans. Furthermore, political fortitude to enact civil rights legislation and put an end to racial discrimination did not exist during the New Deal era.

Just prior to the New Deal, unemployment steadily rose, while the Hoover administration paid little attention to the plight of the jobless and poor. President Hoover ran for re-election and tried to assure the voters with the slogan, “prosperity is just around the corner.” However, the following unemployment figures, published by the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, indicated significant national unemployment, particularly for African-Americans:

According to the 1930 census, 37 percent of working African-Americans were employed as agricultural laborers and 29 percent as personal-service and domestic workers. Only 2 percent were classified as professionals (lawyers, doctors, teachers and clergy)…Unemployment increased rapidly in the early 1930’s. It was thought that approximately 15 percent of the workforce were unemployed in 1930. African-American organizations estimated that the percentage of unemployed black workers was at least twice the rate of the country as a whole.3

A president who pledged to put the nation back together was what America yearned for. FDR appealed to the masses because he adamantly assured all Americans that he would do everything he could to reform the nation. This same view was stated in the following passage from the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History:

President Roosevelt assumed office in 1932 with the promise to turn the economy around and to put American’s back to work. Most Americans, particularly impoverished African-Americans, viewed FDR’s election with optimism, a newfound hope, and the expectation of a better life. These expectations would remain unfulfilled for the next decade.4

In 1933, immediately upon entering the presidency, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasted little time and created what would comprise the single largest economic reform program in the history of the United States: The New Deal. Roosevelt hoped that his New Deal would provide much needed relief to working class Americans during that period of devastating depression. In the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s presidency, during a special session of Congress, major recovery programs were passed. The most notable programs included the Civilian Conservation Corps (March 21, 1933); the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (May 10, 1933); and the National Relief Administration (June 16, 1933). Although the Works Progress Administration (April 28, 1935) had not been formed yet, it later became known as one of the single most important relief programs of the 20th century. Congress passed these programs with the intention that they would ensure a decent living for all able-bodied Americans. What the new programs failed to accomplish however, was to focus on the needs of a large percentage of African-Americans. Rural African-Americans especially, received a disproportionate amount of aid from the government, and suffered immensely in contrast to the industrialist and middle class citizens in the cities. From the African-American perspective, the New Deal represented a series of biased laws, failed programs, and racism. African-American critics of the relief programs were valid in concluding that the New Deal did not meet their expectations. Little had been done to provide African-Americans with relief from the depression and from America’s apparent ambivalence towards racism. Prominent African-American Ralph J. Bunche, a critic of New Deal programs, concluded in 1936:

After two years of frantic trial and error, the New Deal, and most of its elaborate machinery, remains suspended in mid-air, bewildered, and innocuous… unemployment was greater at the end of the year 1934 than it was at the end of December 1933.5

Later, student activists at Howard University, expressed their misgivings about the benefit of New Deal programs to African-Americans at the National Negro Congress:

The Council has not begun to do its part in struggling for the rights of white and Negro workers when it hands out a few dollars to share-croppers facing machine guns, disposition, the burning of their homes, the closing of their schools, the beating and killing of their men, and slow-death form below-zero cold and hunger.6

By early 1932, African-Americans began to organize themselves politically and took the initiative to form their own division of the National Democratic Committee.

Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt promised immediate relief to the working man. Whether he intended to include African-Americans or not, it is not known for sure, but he

gave the black American population hope and sufficient reason to support him. Author

and historian Raymond Wolters explained why African-Americans supported Roosevelt when he wrote: “Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected on a platform that promised to help the forgotten man, and bring a New Deal to the American people.”7

Of the four major relief programs designed and enacted in first 100 days of FDR’s first term, the most comprehensive and well-known New Deal program was the National Recovery Administration. The NRA was a program of government / business cooperation. It intended to establish codes of fair competition between business and labor. These codes set guidelines for pricing and production and guaranteed labor the right of collective bargaining, minimum wages and maximum hours. Even though the NRA did loosen the burden of the poor white male, it did not appreciably relieve the plight of the African-American. Author Raymond Wolters best illustrates this point:

Black objections to the NRA policies, however, were fundamental. In respect to the industrial codes, they pointed out that in the case of Blacks, the codes were frequently evaded through devices such as occupational and geographic job classifications, wage loop holes or simply lack of NRA enforcement. Yet when the minimal wage and hour standards were adequately enforced, they often had equally harmful effects on Black laborers. This was a result of the inability to compete in compliance with NRA wage levels.8

White state officials violated labor codes by ensuring that unemployed whites received the best jobs. The pattern of whites receiving the better jobs was pervasive for a number of reasons. First, particularly in the South, officials who were charged with enforcing NRA regulations were typically white and racist. It was apparent that white males in the South still held racist ideology from the Civil War, seventy years prior to the New Deal. Indeed, the bigotry of whites was quite apparent to African-Americans in the 1930’s. Award-winning author T.H. Watkins accurately remarked about the bias against blacks when he wrote:

Given the equal opportunity nature of bigotry, there was some logic in the fact that the anti-Semitism of the era often was linked to racism that had permeated in American society for three centuries and was still alive in the thirties. A popular doggerel of the day ran, ‘You kiss the Niggers, I’ll kiss the Jews, we’ll stay in he White House as long as we choose.’9

Many blacks had concluded by then that their only friends were members of their own race, and the Federal Government. Most blacks viewed themselves as, “the real sick man of America” and thus in “need of every liberal program,” designed for the “benefit of the masses.” After all, they concluded, “Government of, for, and by the people,” and the “problems of the people are the problems of the Government.”10 Congress passed laws for the poor and destitute, and yet, largely because of continuing racism in America, African-Americans did not receive their rightful benefits from these programs.

A second major reason for African-American discontent with the administration of NRA programs was due to continued segregation. When poor white and black laborers worked together on NRA sponsored construction jobs, government money was used to build separate, less quality housing units for African-Americans. Interestingly, Roosevelt was fully aware of the discrimination suffered by African-Americans, but he wanted to avoid confrontation with Southerners who controlled vital congressional committees. His reluctance to enforce compliance of New Deal programs at the state levels was largely centered on proposed anti-lynching laws. This legislation was written for the purpose of making illegal the barbaric practice of lynching blacks. Surprisingly, the President hesitated to support anti-lynching legislation. FDR made the following comment to NAACP Secretary Walter White in 1933 when asked why he was reluctant to openly support a bill that would promote anti-racism:

I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Southerners, by reason of the seniority rule in Congress, are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the antilynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.11

President Roosevelt’s New Deal poverty programs came under attack for their lack of initiative to correct racial discrimination. Several major programs including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the Tennessee Valley Administration, and the Civil Works Administration, to name a few, were criticized because while they provided some employment assistance to blacks in large cities they ignored the majority, the chronically impoverished rural citizens. During the New Deal period, 56.5% of the black population was rural. Blacks usually worked as sharecroppers and tenants, receiving low wages in a constantly fluctuating market. Clark Foreman, Harold Ickes’ chief racial assistant at the Department of Interior, wrote in 1934, that it was necessary to enact a program sensitive to the plight of rural blacks. He commented the following:

In 1930, the census showed 6,697,230 or 56.5 per cent of the Negro population to be rural. Of that 4,690,523 or 39.3 per cent of the entire Negro population were classified as rural-farm population. Of this number 1,987,839 or 46 percent of the total number of Negroes over 10 years of age were gainfully employed in agriculture; 181,016 Negroes owned and operated farms and 700,911 were tenants, 923 were managers and 1,112,510 were farm laborers of one sort or another. Any program that is intended to reach the masses of the Negro population will undoubtedly have to do something about the Negro farmer.12

In light of an increasing cry for legislation to aid the rural blacks, Roosevelt created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (May 10, 1933). Ironically, in many respects, the AAA actually “enforced” poverty and reinforced racism on the black farm population. It facilitated violations of the rights of the tenants under crop reduction and rendered enforcement of these rights impossible. Faced with the Dred Scott decision against farm tenants, the AAA remained discreetly silent. In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court rendered blacks powerless from suing anyone because they were not considered to be U.S. citizens. Therefore, African-Americans could not dispute their eviction from employment based on discrimination by white officials. For tenants and sharecroppers who were retained on the plantations, the government’s agricultural program meant reduced income. Wholesale fraud in the payment of parity checks occurred. Tenants who complained to the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. were referred back to the locality of where they lived, and trouble of a serious nature often resulted from the white landlords. Even when this did not happen, in many cases, tenants failed to receive their checks. Compulsory reduction of acreage for cotton and tobacco crops, regulated by local boards in which blacks had no representation, meant drastic reduction of their already low income. According to Guy Johnson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in 1934, the burden on the African-American under the AAA was a catastrophe. His thoughts on this subject were as follows:

Even in the administration of federal relief, the Civil Works Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration etc., there has been, particularly in the lower South, a tendency to perpetuate the existing inequalities. Negro tenants received pitifully little of the crop reduction money last fall. Landlords quite generally took charge of the checks and applied them to back debts of the tenants. Furthermore, many landlords are known to have ‘understandings’ with local relief administrators to prevent the ‘demoralization’ of their Negro labor, and it is reported that some go as far as to charge to their tenants’ accounts all food and other supplies furnished by the relief office. The director of relief in a southern seaboard city remarked not long ago, ‘I don’t like this fixing of a wage scale for work relief. Why, the niggers in this town are getting so spoiled working on these relief jobs at thirty cents an hour that they won’t work on the docks for fifty cents a day like they did last year.’ 13

In May 1933, Congress approved creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the largest single undertakings during the New Deal. At that time, the decline of black agricultural employment was a quarter of a million. Roosevelt realized that it was necessary to provide the rural American the same basic privileges that Americans enjoyed in the cities, such as electricity and plumbing. He decided to create major employment opportunities with this program to construct dams in the Tennessee Valley, an area that stretched from Ohio through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama alongside the Tennessee River. Recognized by some historians as the most significant program of the New Deal, the purpose of the TVA was to “provide for the agricultural and industrial development of the Tennessee Valley, and to foster an orderly and physical, economic and social development of such areas.”14 The TVA employed more than 2,000 people in the region and is credited with providing relief to many out-of-work rural citizens. Some of the TVA jobs included the construction of dams to provide fresh water to the rural workers and to provide residents with electricity for their homes. When construction began on the Norris Dam, an integral part of the project, officials rejected African-American applicants for work, telling them that they could not work on it because the entire project was for the advantage of the white man. Moreover, in a number of other TVA dam projects built in densely populated black areas, the workforce was always predominantly white. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Person’s Walter White pointed out the pervasive racial discrimination by TVA administers when he wrote a letter on March 14, 1938 to Senator George Norris, considered the father of the TVA.

“But what my dear Senator Norris, is the worth to a man of an electrically lighted home if he can be taken from that home as easily as from a cabin lighted by candles and burned to death by a howling mob?”15

Blacks were understandably frightened by frequent murders. No one could guarantee their safety, and whites still had the right to lynch blacks. At that time, about the only place that might believe the blacks’ stories of racial injustice was in the Federal Courts.

In many instances, even skilled black workers were not used for projects where their talents could have been helpful. Another problem facing black workers was the enormous number of unemployed and unskilled black laborers. Officials in the TVA would generally pick a white skilled worker or a white unskilled worker over a