How the old South shaped the New Deal

I remember Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics and politicians’ speeches about the Democratic Party’s four great champions of the common people—Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What I didn’t think about was that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were Southern slaveholders, and Woodrow Wilson was a Southern-born segregationist.

Fear ItselfNow I have just finished reading Fear Itself: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Timeby Ira Katznelson, which tells how the Southern white supremacists shaped the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman in ways that still affect the USA today.   It made me see the history of that era in a new way.

Without the Southern Democrats in Congress, the New Deal legislation would not have been enacted.  Lend-Lease aid to Britain and a military draft system would not have been approved prior to U.S. entry into World War Two, and the Cold War.

I grew up in a family that idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But the history of the New Deal era is more than the saga of FDR.

He might have attempted to rule as a dictator.   Katznelson showed how many people in 1933 felt that American capitalism and democracy were collapsing, and that the USA needed a Mussolini.  But he did not make the attempt.

FDR did claim and exercise sweeping powers greater than exercised by any previous President in peacetime.  But he never exercised any power not granted by Congress.  As a result the United States went through 20 years of crisis with its Constitutional structure intact.  The price of this was that U.S. policy was confined within what Katznelson called a “Southern cage.”

From most of 1933-1953, Democrats were a majority in Congress.  But a majority of the Democratic Senators and Representatives were Southerners, and, because of the seniority system, Southerners were chairs of key committees.  Without Southern cooperation, FDR’s proposals could not have been enacted.

Southern Democrats were not antagonistic to the New Deal as such.  They wanted curbs on the power of Northern banks, railroads and other corporations, federal public works and relief for the homeless and unemployed—provided that they got these things in a way that did not disturb white supremacy in the South.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas backed the New Deal, as one observer said, “so long as they fought the money power and the big industries—so long as they were pro-farmer and did not stir up the niggers [sic].”

Katznelson gave a sketch of Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, a vulgar and outspoken racist and anti-Semite and defender of lynching, who nevertheless was considered a liberal because of his defense of the interests of poor white farmers against the rich planters and big corporations.

There was strong support in the South for the National Recovery Act, an attempted government-business partnership to plan the economy.   Southerners supported Social Security, unemployment compensation, public housing, farm subsidies, the National Labor Relations Act, public works, federal deposit insurance and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But Social Security excluded agricultural workers and servants, which included a majority of black workers in the South.  The National Labor Relations Act, guaranteeing the right to form labor unions, did not apply to agricultural workers, which were defined to include workers in food processing.

The WPA and PWA, which administered public works, allowed segregation and a two-tier wage system.  The Tennessee Valley Authority was administered by segregationists.  Unemployment compensation, farm subsidies and public housing were administered locally and not from Washington.

And President Roosevelt adamantly refused to support anti-lynching legislation.  It would jeopardize his whole program, he said.

Even this compromise was upset when the interracial CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) sought to organize the South.   The union hall was an institution in the South where black and white people met on a basis of equality.   This was unacceptable to Southern whites, even those who were pro-labor.

Southern Democrats decided that Communism was behind the agitation for labor unions and racial equality.  (In fact American Communists were active in union organizing, and supported racial equality more forthrightly than almost any other group).

The House Committee on Un-American Activities, headed by Martin Dies of Texas, was organized in 1938 to investigate Nazis, but soon shifted its emphasis to alleged Communist influence on New Deal policy, and congressional investigations of Communists and alleged Communists continued through the 1950s.

In 1947, Southern Democrats supported conservative Republicans in enacting the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted the freedom of action of labor unions and, in Katznelson’s opinion and mine, too, put a stop to the growth of the union movement.

The fears of the Southern Democrats were, from their standpoint, justified.  The New Deal did bring African-Americans into the Democratic Party.  Even though black people were not treated with full equality, they were better off than they would have been otherwise.  Northern Democratic politicians sought their votes.   The CIO brought white and black Americans together, working for a common purpose.

Despite the best efforts of the Southern Democrats, the New Deal planted the seeds of the civil rights era and the Democrats replaced the Republicans as the party of civil rights.

Meanwhile the Southern Democrats gave crucial support to President Roosevelt in supporting the Allies against Hitler, and then to President Truman in forging an anti-Communist alliance.  This will be the subject of another post.


The New Deal That Could Have Been by Rich Yeselson for The American Prospect

Pulling back from the brink by Jonathan Bradley for American Review

The Last Lost Cause by Jeremy Kessler Jr. for Jacobin.

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3 Responses to “How the old South shaped the New Deal”

  1. Gunny G Says:

    Reblogged this on BLOGGING BAD w/Gunny G ~ "THE CLINGERS".


  2. Paul Lemmen Says:

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.


  3. ebrew79 Says:

    Because of Southern Democrats in Congress, Blacks were cut out of huge swaths of The New Deal, including Social Security and The GI Bill. Also FDR’s refusal to sign anti-lynching laws was mainly because of him not wanting to lose support from SD’s.


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