This book examines a remarkable political phenomenon--the dramatic shift of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party in the 1930s, a shift all the more striking in light of the Democrats' indifference to racial concerns. Nancy J. Weiss shows that blacks became Democrats in response to the economic benefits of the New Deal and that they voted for Franklin Roosevelt in spite of the New Deal's lack of a substantive record on race.
By their support for FDR blacks forged a political commitment to the Democratic party that has lasted to our own time. The last group to join the New Deal coalition, they have been the group that remained the most loyal to the Democratic party. This book explains the sources of their commitment in the 1930s. It stresses the central role of economic concerns in shaping black political behavior and clarifies both the New Deal record on race and the extraordinary relationship between black voters and the Roosevelts.
"It was Franklin Roosevelt's ability to provide jobs, not his embrace of civil rights," Princeton historian Weiss successfully maintains, "that made him a hero to black Americans" - and converted them, between 1932 and 1936, from Republicans to Democrats. That conclusion, though undoctrinaire, will not surprise anyone who's kept abreast of New Deal studies. Weiss' text, however, offers much new, graphic information; careful, in-context evaluation; and the pleasure of reading crisp, vivid, incisive historical writing. The detail is compelling. In 1932, Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert Vann, disillusioned by Republican failure to reward his past support, made contact with Pennsylvania FDR strategist Joseph Guffey through a black manicurist who told Guffey's sister that Vann would like to see her brother; "the result was the creation of the Democratic National Committee's Colored Advisory Committee, of which Vann was one of four principal leaders." In the campaign, however, neither candidate reached out to black voters; neither answered a pointed NAACP questionnaire. ("What steps would they take to remove obstacles to black political participation in the South? To eliminate racial criteria for civil service appointments?" Etc.) Some blacks did reconcile "the Lincoln legacy" with voting for FDR "as the route to political independence and maturity"; but the black vote in toto was too insignificant, the shift too slight, to put race "on the New Deal agenda." Roosevelt himself was apathetic; the "Negro problem" was widely seen as a Southern and economic issue; administration priorities plus political realities mandated Southern congressional support. "What was new in the early 1930s was the crushing impact of the Depression on [the blacks'] already depressed economic structure." The first New Deal programs, though officially non-discriminatory, were vastly inequitable: how could blacks respond? One avenue led to the appointment of racial advisers in federal agencies: Mary McCleod Bethune at the National Youth Administration, most famously. "The New Deal also stimulated the emergence at the local level of a new group of black politicians": Democratic-convert Arthur Mitchell, personally ambitious and politically alert, in place of old-Republican Oscar DePriest in Chicago. Roosevelt's unwillingness to press for black rights, nonetheless, is illustrated by the unsuccessful fight for antilynching legislation. The role of the informal Black Cabinet of racial advisers, on the other hand, demonstrates how important it was just to have blacks in government. But at the polls in 1936 blacks expressed their gratitude to FDR for the roofs over their heads, regardless. (The vote was disproportionate in poor neighborhoods - while the black elite stayed Republican.) With sensitive consideration of why blacks idolized Roosevelt (no more an Emancipator than Lincoln), and word of how they fared in his second administration: level and balanced and, like Mark Naison's Communists in Harlem During the Depression (above), sophisticated. (Kirkus Reviews)