Black America in the Roosevelt Era

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John B. Kirby. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race. Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1980. xvii + 254 pp. $14.50, ISBN 0-87049-3493.


The book deals with the impact of a small group of white liberal “interracialists,” black leaders and intellectuals who helped influence policy during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s and then into the 1940’s. The book is an attempt to understand how these individuals and their ideals changed the conditions of life for black Americans at the time, their relationship with the federal government and, thus, the relationships between whites and blacks. The individuals whose influence Kirby examines were people who had a long history of working towards the betterment of blacks and saw the New Deal style of reform as a means for achieving racial progress in the country (px). Through looking at how these individuals worked within the political system to change opinions about black Americans, Kirby describes how compromise allowed some progress to be made. But in the longer view meaningful change for black Americans would have to wait. Much more interesting is that much of the framework and political strategy of the civil rights movement that followed came from this period.

Throughout the book Kirby analyzes the policies of the Roosevelt administration during the 30’s. He examines how the ideology and compromises of these individuals sought to find a solution to what was referred to as the “Negro Problem”. From the start Kirby explains that most Americans didn’t view the civil or economic rights of black Americans as a part of the nation’s problems during the Great Depression or New Deal years. New Deal liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Alexander and Harold Ickes were convinced that by eradicating the economic differences between black and whites racism would begin to disappear. (However, Kirby argues that the depth and structure of racism that black leaders saw was never really addressed by the liberal policy makers). Kirby states that “in maintaining that the solution to America’s racial dilemma was predicated on altering the economic position of black Americans, New Dealers like Ickes simply rationalized their own assumptions and the limits of the administration’s response to Negro needs” (p35).

Despite the ideas the liberals or New Dealers had about what they wanted, both they and black leaders had to work within a political framework put in place by whites. Working within this framework and political realities of the time forced more compromise than both white and black leaders wanted. By not challenging discrimination in the labor unions and federal government many blacks thought Roosevelt had let them down. Eleanor Roosevelt affirmed that the government could not force industry to accept blacks in its employment (p94). Black leaders were often frustrated when attacks on blacks or segregation itself went unanswered. Many white leaders thought attacking the “Negro Problem” head on would only arouse racial stereotypes and tension that would counter the small advances already made. Even Eleanor Roosevelt avoided open violation of the rules of southern life. This, as Kirby points out, made any meaningful change all but impossible. While the New Deal liberals talked a good game, New Deal programs discriminated against minorities. However some black leaders still supported Roosevelt, because they thought the small gains they won from the Roosevelt administration for their followers were better than nothing.


Pat Kelly, Fall 2007

The book is a good, narrow look at how white liberal “interracialists” within the Roosevelt administration of the 1930’s tried to help the economic and social plight of black Americans. Author John Kirby provides the reader with adequate background on how the 1920’s and the Great Depression affected blacks. He gives background on the job losses after World War I and how, even though both Harding and Coolidge despised lynching, neither ever gave much support to black organizations to fight it. He discusses how during the 1920’s many in America didn’t want to acknowledge there was even a “Negro problem.” At the time many intellectuals and liberals thought American needed to redefine its social and cultural priorities. Many liberals talked about wanting control, order and a harmony of interest to help establish a new social order. The latter sounded like a progressive theme, but Kirby never really mentions the progressives and whether they had any influence within the Roosevelt administration. Kirby never thoroughly explains why blacks switched from the Republican Party. Kirby just states that failure of the Republican leaders to use their political power to further the cause of racial justice paved the way for black disaffection of the 1930’s (p6).

The blacks knew something the white liberals hadn’t really recognized yet. Blacks still had to work within the boundaries set by whites. The book is more about how one group or race set the goals for another through their assumptions. It doesn’t look at the racial prejudice that was at the heart of the “Negro Problem” at the time. Kirby focuses more on economic issues of the period than on social issues. He mentions how black leaders were always being forced into compromises they didn’t want but doesn’t go into great detail. He doesn’t look at the social implications of the decision. A good example is that to help alleviate the need for better housing for blacks, housing projects for blacks were created. But Kirby doesn’t explain that the blacks were still segregated and not getting the opportunities to enter into the world they sought to enter. Many of the New Deal Programs in the South and other regions were still segregated even as Eleanor Roosevelt was talking about granting more jobs and financial aid to minorities like black Americans (p81). The title of the book is a little misleading since it looks more at the white liberal intellectuals who were in charge. It would have been better if Kirby could have looked at how black leaders of the time such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Walter White or even a young Thurgood Marshall were dealing with the problems of the blacks on a daily basis. Eleanor Roosevelt was very astute when she noted “the change has to come slowly from the human heart and it takes a long while to bring about great changes” (p84).

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