Party Realignment And The New Deal

The realignment of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party that began in the late 1920s proliferated during this era. This process involved a “push and pull”: the refusal by Republicans to pursue civil rights alienated many black voters, while efforts—shallow though they were—by northern Democrats to open opportunities for African Americans gave black voters reasons to switch parties.26

The 1932 presidential contest between incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was something of a turning point. During his first term, Hoover had tried to ingratiate himself with southern segregationists, and his administration had failed to implement economic policies to help African Americans laid low by the Great Depression. Still, Hoover received between two-thirds and three-quarters of the black vote in northern urban wards.27 Most black voters sided with Republicans less out of loyalty than because they were loath to support a candidate whose Democratic Party had zealously suppressed their political rights in the South. African Americans mistrusted FDR because of his party affiliation, his evasiveness about race in the campaign, and his choice of a running mate, House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas.28

As late as the mid-1930s, African American Republican John R. Lynch, who had represented Mississippi in the House during and after Reconstruction, summed up the sentiments of older black voters and upper middle-class professionals: “The colored voters cannot help but feel that in voting the Democratic ticket in national elections they will be voting to give their indorsement [sic] and their approval to every wrong of which they are victims, every right of which they are deprived, and every injustice of which they suffer.”29

Oscar De Priest/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_depriest_oscar_smithsonian_-618ns0227109-01pm.xml Image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Born in Alabama, Representative Oscar De Priest became the first African American elected from the North and the first to be elected in the 20th century.
Illinois’s First Congressional District provides a window into the process of black political realignment in northern cities. Prior to becoming solidly Democratic in 1934, the South Chicago district elected Republican Oscar De Priest in 1928, 1930, and 1932. Southern African Americans, who swelled the city’s population during that period giving it the second-largest urban black population in the country by 1930, encountered an established Republican machine that courted black voters and extended patronage jobs. The party offered these migrants an outlet for political participation that was unimaginable in the Jim Crow South. African Americans voted in droves for machine politicians like William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson, who regularly corralled at least 60 percent of the vote in the majority-black Second and Third Wards. Mayor Thompson and the machine promoted black politicians such as De Priest who, in 1915, became the city’s first African-American alderman, the equivalent of a city councilman. Black voters remained exceedingly loyal to the Republican ticket.30

Indeed, the most common political experience African-American Members of this era shared was their involvement in politics at the ward and precinct levels. The Chicago political machines run by Thompson and, later, Democrats such as Edward J. Kelly and Richard J. Daley, sent nearly one-third of the black Members of this era to Capitol Hill. Local and regional political machines recognized the voting power of the growing African-American urban population long before the national parties realized its potential. At the beginning of this era, the relationship between black politicians and party bosses was strong, and many black Members of Congress placed party loyalty above all else. But by the late 1960s, as black politicians began to assemble their own power bases, carving out a measure of independence, they often challenged the machine when party interests conflicted with issues important to the black community. Unlike earlier black Members who relied on the established political machines to launch their careers, these Members, most of whom had grown up in the cities they represented, managed to forge political bases separate from the dominant party structure. By linking familial and community connections with widespread civic engagement, they routinely clashed with the entrenched political powers.31

Discontent with the Hoover administration’s halting efforts to revive the Depression-era economy also loosened African-American ties to the Republican Party. Nationally, the staggering financial collapse hit black Americans harder than most other groups. Thousands had already lost agricultural jobs in the mid-1920s due to the declining cotton market.32 Others had lost industrial jobs in the first stages of economic contraction, so black workers nationally were already in the grips of an economic depression before the stock market collapsed in October 1929. By the early 1930s, 38 percent of African Americans were unemployed compared to 17 percent of whites.33 A Roosevelt administration study found that black Americans constituted 20 percent of everyone on the welfare rolls, even though they accounted for just 10 percent of the total population. In Chicago, one-fourth of welfare recipients were black, although black residents made up just 6 percent of the city’s total population.34

Mary McLeod Bethune/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_african-americans-wwii-224-Bethune-and-E-Roosevelt-PBA-10-F-561.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration At the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (center), Mary McLeod Bethune (left), a leading African-American educator, was appointed to head the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.
Some African-American politicians in the early 1930s switched parties to advance their own careers while simultaneously helping their black communities.35Arthur Mitchell and William Dawson epitomized a younger cadre of African Americans who were “ambitious and impatient with the entrenched black Republican leadership, [seeking] a chance for personal advancement in the concurrent rise of the national Democratic party.”36 Paid to speak on behalf of Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign, Mitchell encountered the De Priest campaign at a Chicago engagement and shortly thereafter joined De Priest’s Second Ward Regular Republican Organization, hoping to challenge De Priest in the primary election. But after evaluating De Priest’s control of the machine, Mitchell switched parties to campaign for Roosevelt in 1932. Two years later, he successfully unseated De Priest, even though the incumbent retained the majority of the black vote. Mitchell became the first African American elected to Congress as a Democrat—running largely on a platform that tapped into urban black support for the economic relief provided by New Deal programs. “I was elected partly on the achievement of your administration,” Mitchell wrote President Roosevelt shortly after starting his term in office, “and partly on the promise that I would stand [in] back of your administration.”37

Even more telling was the defection of De Priest’s protégé, William Dawson, who won election to the Chicago city council as a Republican with De Priest’s backing in 1932. Six years later, Dawson defeated De Priest in the 1938 GOP primary, but failed to unseat Mitchell in the general election. Dawson then lost his seat on the city council when De Priest allies blocked his re-nomination. But Dawson soon seized an opportunity extended by his one-time opponents. Working with Democratic mayoral incumbent Ed Kelly, Dawson changed parties and became Democratic committeeman in the Second Ward, clearing a path to succeed Mitchell upon his retirement from the House in 1942. Dawson’s case epitomized the willingness of Democratic bosses like Kelly to recruit African Americans by using their political machines.38

Additionally, black voters nationwide began leaving the Republican Party because of the growing perception that local Democratic organizations better represented their interests. Local patronage positions and nationally administered emergency relief programs in Depression-era Chicago and other cities, for instance, proved crucial in attracting African-American support.39 While the New Deal failed to extend as much economic relief to black Americans as to whites, the tangible assistance they provided conferred a sense that the system was at least addressing a few issues that were important to African Americans. For those who had been marginalized or ignored for so long, even the largely symbolic efforts of the Roosevelt administration inspired hope and renewed interest in the political process.40

As the older generation of black voters disappeared, the Democratic machines that dominated northern city wards courted the next generation of black voters. By 1936 only 28 percent of African Americans nationally voted for Republican nominee Alf Landon—less than half the number who had voted for Hoover just four years before.41 Over time, the party affiliations of black Americans in Congress became equally one-sided. Including Oscar De Priest, just nine black Republicans were elected to Congress between 1929 and 2017—about 7 percent of the African Americans to serve in that time span.42

The Limits of New Deal Reform

Despite the growing support from black voters, President Franklin D. Roosevelt remained aloof and ambivalent about black civil rights. His economic policies depended on the support of southern congressional leaders, and FDR refused to risk that support by challenging segregation in the South. During Roosevelt’s first term, the administration focused squarely on mitigating the economic travails of the Depression. This required a close working relationship with Congresses dominated by racially conservative southern Democrats, including several Speakers and most of the chairmen of key committees. “Economic reconstruction took precedence over all other concerns,” observed historian Harvard Sitkoff. “Congress held the power of the purse, and the South held power in Congress.”43

NAACP Anti-Lynching Protest/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_anti-lynching_protest_1927_LC-USZ62-110578.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Members of the NAACP New York City Youth Council picket in 1937 on behalf of anti-lynching legislation in front of the Strand Theater in New York City’s Times Square. That same year an anti-lynching bill passed the U.S. House, but died in the Senate.
Other institutional and structural reforms implemented by the administration, however, eclipsed the President’s impassivity toward black civil rights activists.44 Absent Roosevelt’s hands-on involvement, progressive New Dealers advanced the cause of African Americans, transforming how many black voters perceived the Democratic Party.45 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt prodded her husband to be more responsive and cultivated connections with black leaders, such as educator and women’s rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. One historian described the First Lady as an “unofficial ombudsman for the Negro.”46 Harold Ickes, a key Roosevelt appointee and Secretary of the Interior Department, was another prominent advocate for African Americans. A former president of the Chicago National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a one-time Republican, Ickes banned segregation from his department; other executive agencies followed his example. As director of the Public Works Administration, Ickes also stipulated that the agency’s federal contractors must hire a percentage of black employees equal to or higher than their percentage of the workforce recorded in the 1930 occupational census.47

The failure to pass anti-lynching legislation underscored the limitations of reform under FDR. In this instance—unlike in the early 1920s when there were no black Representatives in Congress—an African-American Member of Congress, Arthur Mitchell, refused to endorse legislation supported by the NAACP. Moreover, Mitchell introduced his own anti-lynching bill in the 74th Congress (1935–1937), which critics assailed as weak for providing far more lenient sentences and containing many legal ambiguities. Given the choice, Southerners favored Mitchell’s bill, although they amended it considerably in the Judiciary Committee, further weakening its provisions. Meanwhile, Mitchell waged a public relations blitz on behalf of his bill, including a national radio broadcast. Only when reformers convincingly tabled Mitchell’s proposal early in the 75th Congress (1937–1939) did he enlist in the campaign to support the NAACP measure—smarting from the realization that Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatton Sumners of Texas had misled and used him. The NAACP measure passed the House in April 1937 by a vote of 277 to 120 but was never enacted into law. Instead, Southerners in the Senate effectively buried it in early 1938 by blocking efforts to bring it to an up-or-down vote on the floor.48 The rivalry between Mitchell and the NAACP, meanwhile, forecast future problems. Importantly, it revealed that African-American Members and outside advocacy groups sometimes worked at cross-purposes, confounding civil rights supporters in Congress and providing opponents a wedge for blocking legislation.

Next Section


26See, for example, Nancy Weiss’s treatment in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983). For “push and pull,” see Michael Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007): 41, 42–55.

27Ample literature exists on the movement of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party: Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln; Donald J. Lisio, Hoover, Blacks & Lily-Whites: A Study of Southern Strategies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Richard Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1973): 134–144.

28Lisio, Hoover, Blacks & Lily-Whites: A Study of Southern Strategies: 260–266; Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 134–144.

29See Harold F. Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (New York: AMS Press, 1969; reprint of 1935 University of Chicago Press edition): 24–25.

30For more on the background of the city’s Republican politics during this period, see Rita Werner Gordon, “The Change in the Political Alignment of Chicago’s Negroes During the New Deal,” Journal of American History 56 (1969): 586–588.

31See, for example, Clay, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots: 1–6.

32For an analysis of how the agricultural collapse in the South contributed to black political activism, see Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982): especially 65–116.

33John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. (New York: Knopf, 2000): 421.

34See Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans: 421–422; David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 87, 164; see also Lester Chandler, America’s Great Depression (New York: Harper and Row, 1970): 40. The national and local GOP’s inability to alleviate African-American economic distress played a role in the movement of African Americans away from the party, although in 1932 black Chicagoans remained loyal to the Republican Party because the new Democratic mayoral administration stripped so many black city employees of patronage jobs conferred by the old Thompson machine. See Gordon, “The Change in the Political Alignment of Chicago’s Negroes During the New Deal”: 591–592.

35Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: 78–95. See also William J. Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931–1991 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992): 47–68.

36Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: 78.

37Ibid., 88.

38Ibid., 89–95.

39Ibid., 212. Another scholar points to two “stages” of Chicago’s black political realignment: the first consisting of registration at the polls in 1936 election (the response to New Deal emergency relief measures) and the latter occurring in 1944, when the national party under FDR embraced a larger civil rights reform agenda. See Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: 52–53; see also Gordon, “The Change in the Political Alignment of Chicago’s Negroes During the New Deal”: 603.

40Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: 227.

41Even in the South, African Americans were drawn toward supporting the national Democratic Party of Roosevelt and, later, Truman. “Now, if anybody thinks we ought to leave this Democratic ship and jump back into the Southern Republican skeleton and help put some meat on its bones, they have got some more thought coming,” wrote a black newspaper editorialist in 1947. “Brethren, we had too hard a time getting on this ship and we are going to stay, sink or swim.” Quoted in V. O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Union (Knoxville: University Press of Tennessee, 1984): 291; originally published by C. Blythe Andres, 29 November 1947, Florida Sentinel (Tampa); Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote: 56.

42The other black Republicans were Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Melvin Evans of the Virgin Islands, Gary Franks of Connecticut, J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, Allen West of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mia Love of Utah, and William Hurd of Texas.

43Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981): 44–46; quotation on page 51.

44For a recent study suggesting that judiciary policies pursued by the Roosevelt administration had an important effect on future Supreme Court civil rights rulings, see Kevin McMahon, Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004): especially 7–8, 177–202, 218–222.

45For an overview, see Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote:45–47.

46On Eleanor Roosevelt generally, see Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: 58–62; quotation on page 60. For a recent, comprehensive treatment of Eleanor Roosevelt, see Allida Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

47Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: 66–69.

48For Mitchell’s motivations, see Dennis S. Nordin, The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997): 210–221. For the larger anti-lynching campaign in 1936 and 1937, see Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching: 1909–1950 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980): 139–165. For the legislative actions on lynching by a southern woman in the U.S. Senate in the 1930s, see “Dixie Bibb Graves,” in Office of History and Preservation, Women in Congress, 1917–2006: 169–171.