The Not-So-New Deal

Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR

by Nancy J. Weiss
Princeton University Press, 333 pp., $32.50; $12.50 (paper)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

Large and sudden transfers of ethnic group loyalties from one party to another are relatively rare in American political history. The largest and most sudden of them—that of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party—was the most improbable and anomalous of all. Age-long, unbroken, and all but unanimous, the black attachment to the party of Lincoln, emancipation, and reconstruction was obvious and inevitable enough. The improbabilities and anomalies come in the sudden shift by blacks to the party traditionally identified with the fight against emancipation and reconstruction and with an ongoing record of racial discrimination, segregation, disfranchisement, exclusion, white primaries, and white supremacy. Explanations have been troubled by controversy.

Little doubt exists about when the huge shift took place: it came between the elections of 1932 and 1936. The question is why. A view characteristic of the New Left in the 1960s was that the blacks, “trapped in hopelessness, were seduced by rhetoric, by the style and movement, by the symbolism of efforts seldom reaching beyond words.” 1 An opposing view is that of the fullest study made before the one under review. Its author contends that the New Deal was “a turning point in race relations,” “a watershed of developments,” and that its positive record on race issues brought about the great shift of black voters in party allegiance.2 Nancy J. Weiss of Princeton in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln rejects both of these explanations. She believes neither that the blacks were seduced by rhetoric, style, and symbolism which concealed betrayal and neglect, nor that the New Deal record on race issues deserves the name of “turning point” or was substantial enough to account for the turnaround of black party allegiance. Her explanations are more complex.

Afro-Americans had plenty of reasons for disenchantment with Republicans before 1932, and a few leaders, such as Robert L. Vann, a loyal Republican until 1930, were hoping to see “millions of Negroes turning the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall.” But Hoover ran far ahead of Roosevelt in most black districts in 1932 and actually increased his share of the black vote in comparison with his showing in 1928. Neither candidate addressed a black audience or appealed specifically to black voters. Negroes seem to have defected in smaller numbers than any other Republican group. With some exaggeration one of them could say that “Being a black Democrat was like announcing one had typhoid.”

Black people had little to expect from Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Hudson River patrician with no particular concern for racial equality or racial justice. A parttime resident of the South, he called himself a Georgian by adoption and appeared to be “entirely comfortable with the racial folkways of the South.” He had cheerfully helped implement them in Washington as a member of President Wilson’s administration and had largely ignored his black constituents when…

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