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 he was governor of New York. His choice of a running mate, John Nance Garner of Texas, was appalling to blacks. With no champion of the race present, the new administration accommodated a vocal body of reactionary opinion. Majority leaders of the House and Senate as well as chairmen of major congressional committees were Southerners whose votes were absolutely vital to Roosevelt’s program. Even Henry A. Wallace enjoyed “darkie” stories and was no friend of blacks. Thomas G. Corcoran declared flatly, “there wasn’t any race problem” in the 1930s. In any case, Weiss concludes, it “simply was not a part of the dominant New Deal consciousness.”

Of course there was always the First Lady, and Eleanor Roosevelt made it plain from the start that one of the causes she championed was racial justice—as she conceived it. One of her ways of showing it was to turn up at black churches, colleges, housing projects, and interracial gatherings and be photographed with blacks. Another was to see that they were represented in some White House gatherings and that they perceived in her a means of reaching the president’s ear. In that era of unyielding segregation and white supremacy Mrs. Roosevelt was seen as a racial liberal. Yet even she was capable of lapsing into racial stereotypes and slurs, and as late as 1940 she could repeat some of her favorite “darkie” stories in public speeches. For black Americans, nevertheless, Eleanor Roosevelt was a unique experience in the twentieth century—a friend in the White House whom they felt they could trust. They exaggerated her influence, pinned exorbitant hopes on her, and adored her immoderately. At least she would listen.

To her and to anyone else who would listen they brought their pigeonholed bills and frustrated plans. Foremost lobbyist among them always was that formidable and imperious black matriarch Mary McLeod Bethune, who had unique access to the White House. She was the self-appointed head of the so-called Black Cabinet, an informal network of blacks in government. In the front line of pressure groups also was Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. Among the causes they urged were ending segregation and discrimination in government departments, civil service, the military, and interstate travel, fairness in the distribution of federal aid, and restoration of voting rights. The cause on which they concentrated most of their resources, however, was a bill to make lynching a federal crime.


Marshaling all the funds and allies available, they made the battle for the anti-lynching law a symbol of the cause of racial justice in the 1930s—and they lost the battle. Intransigent opposition from Southern congressmen in the name of States’ rights defeated them. Repeated appeals to FDR for help on this, as on other racial issues, always met with the same response. He had to have the support of the Southern leadership in Congress for his recovery program and could not afford to risk alienating essential votes with millions still out of work and an election coming on. It was not so much insensitivity as it was politics. In all racial issues, as Weiss puts it, “a political calculus took precedence over moral outrage, and the need to mollify Congress always won the day.” The consequence was that in the quest for goals uppermost in the minds of black leaders they came away all but empty-handed. And the New Deal’s “record on race in the second term was not much different from what it had been in the first.”

The agenda of black leaders was one thing, but how did blacks generally fare in the New Deal programs for which the racial and moral issues were presumably sacrificed? Their fortunes varied somewhat according to the program, but in nearly all there was pervasive discrimination. The National Youth Administration, thanks to Aubrey Williams, the administrator, and the influence of Mary McLeod Bethune, had the best record. The Works Progress Administration was probably next, though it was often plagued by discrimination. Some New Deal programs, notably the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, were organized in such a way as to invite discrimination. The AAA payment to farm owners and managers for crop reduction too rarely “trickled down” to tenants and croppers, since there was no enforcement machinery and no federal official to whom recipients had to account. Not only did owners fail to pass on to tenants and croppers their share of benefits, but they regularly solved the problem of crop reduction by turning them off the land—nearly a quarter of the croppers and a third of the tenants, hundreds of thousands of farmers, most of them black. White tenants and croppers fared better for the time being.

New Deal legislation of the “second hundred days” in 1935 has earned the reputation of a shift to a more liberal or radical program. If so it could hardly have appeared that way to blacks. The National Labor Relations Act guaranteeing the right to bargain collectively, and the Social Security Act, particularly Old Age Security, played cruel tricks on many of them. The more the NAACP studied the Social Security Act, “the more holes appeared, until from a Negro’s point of view it look[ed] like a sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” The Crisis, journal of the association, told its readers in 1935 that “they ought to realize by now that the powers-that-be in the Roosevelt administration have nothing for them.”

So far this account would seem to deepen rather than solve the enigma of the shift of the black electorate to Roosevelt in 1936. There was no doubt about the shift or its extent, for FDR won 60 to 250 percent more votes in black districts of major cities than he had in 1932. “Isn’t it perfectly amazing?” wrote Walter White to Eleanor Roosevelt. It certainly was, and the paradox of this black marriage to the party of white supremacy was immediately apparent to perceptive observers. The durability of the union has left the problem in the lap of the historian.

Nancy Weiss does not make a quick judgment. She stresses the prevailing racial conservatism of the period, “the inflammatory potential of race as a political issue,” and the need for evaluating the cautious and tentative responses of the politicians, black as well as white, “in the context of their times.” Blacks of the 1930s found the symbolic racial gestures of the New Deal—timid and restrained as they seem in retrospect—“impressive because there had been nothing like them in anyone’s memory.” Gestures of this sort included Mrs. Roosevelt’s pouring a glass of water for Mary McLeod Bethune when her voice cracked during a public speech, or the government’s sponsorship (with no risk of violating States’ rights) of the Lincoln Memorial concert of Marian Anderson after the Daughters of the American Revolution excluded her from Constitution Hall.


The evasiveness of New Dealers on issues of racial justice and the repeated frustration of protests against lynching, Jim Crow, white primaries, and discrimination “related more to the ritual of black leadership than it did to actual expectations about realizable progress,” according to Weiss. No leader could have maintained his standing among his colleagues or constituency without publicly demanding such reforms. Even among the leaders, however, there was probably “a gap between their public assertions and their private expectations,” and “the racial expectations of most blacks fell considerably short of the protest voiced by black spokesmen.” In the words of the historian Rayford W. Logan, “Negroes had been so depressed, so frustrated, almost having given up hope, that nearly anything would have created substantial support.”

The critical thing determining the choice of individual voters, in Weiss’s opinion, “depended less on their racial identity than on their economic fortunes.” For all the notorious and pervasive racial discrimination of the New Deal programs, they did help the suffering poor, and the “poor man” was the typical black American. The single most important New Deal event for blacks was the Works Progress Administration, which was literally the salvation of millions of unemployed, and of them blacks were the most desperate of all. The WPA put manual and skilled laborers to work on sewage systems, water-works, irrigation ditches, hospitals, power lines, airports, and roads. It employed substantial numbers of black professionals: architects, engineers, writers, musicians, and actors. And it brought schools, public housing, and community centers as well as recreational and vocational services to black neighborhoods.

When blacks went to the polls in 1936 and 1940, it is little wonder that “the poor man’s friend” won the great majority of their votes. Roosevelt’s showing was strongest in the poorest black neighborhoods. Partisan allegiance, however, still remained rooted in economic circumstances, for among middle- and upper-class black professionals, businessmen, and civic leaders, nearly 70 percent still called themselves Republicans. There was still a marked discrepancy between the way blacks voted and their partisan self-identification, for while 71 percent of blacks believed themselves Roosevelt supporters in 1936, only 44 percent of those surveyed the following year called themselves Democrats. The wholesale party identification came later.

As meager as the Negro’s share of benefits may have been, it came in tangible forms that touched millions of lives. “It may be tragic that it took so little to win black support for the New Deal,” Weiss concludes, “but the hard facts are that it was much more than blacks were accustomed to getting.”

This Issue

December 8, 1983