As National African-American History Month draws to a close, it affords us the opportunity to remember some important events that continue to inform contemporary responsibility. One symposium I attended began by recalling the America that elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as our president in 1932. We were a nation of 130 million people. The African-American population, an approximated 12 million of our fellow citizens, primarily located in the southern states -- the same states that had enslaved African Americans for two centuries, that had built an economy on their servitude, and had fought a Civil War to prevent their emancipation. Then, through the control and manipulation of the government -- including the Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court -- and the voting process protected by "State Rights," the southern states prevented the emancipation for which Abraham Lincoln had given his life, and proceeded to destroy the meaning of the constitutional amendments that had been adopted after the Civil War granting freedom and opportunity and equal rights to all African Americans.
The Great Depression, which was deeply rooted by the time Roosevelt took office, included the collapse of the banking system and the economy. Twenty-five million workers were unemployed. There was no safety net to help those who were affected by this catastrophe. Farmers in 1932 were 25% of the economy -- they lost their farms, they could not sell their produce and they could not continue to grow the products because the cost of production exceeded the cost of sale. The senior segment of our population was deeply afflicted. Seniors included the greatest percentage of lost jobs, with no retirement benefits, no Social Security to help them, and left to live on the care and concern of their families which were already terribly overburdened. The despair of revolution was in the streets. In the world the dictators were on the march. Hitler was coming to power in Germany. Mussolini already led the Fascist forces in Italy, and Fascism was admired in many parts of the world. In the Far East, Japanese militarism had taken over the government, beginning a decade of aggression in Asia and ultimately against the United States itself. A serious question was asked by serious people: Can democracy be saved?
But did President Roosevelt's hope and optimism embrace the black community? In 1932 Washington was a segregated city, made so by the last Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson. Great change came about in those dramatic years when Americans looked into their souls and joined together to save the Republic. African Americans saw those years as the beginning of the emancipation they had been promised. In 1932, African Americans were the only large population block that voted as a majority for Herbert Hoover. By the time of the next election, Franklin Roosevelt received 75% of the African American vote and it only continued to grow. Black Americans upended the party of Abraham Lincoln because it was dominated by Jim Crow. The Democrats weren't much better because of the power of the southern states, but Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt made it clear that a new era was beginning. They set in motion programs that would give meaning to the equality promised to all Americans by the Declaration of Independence. The full employment economy of World War II was a major factor in liberating African Americans. The great migration from the South to the North and Midwest changed forever the attitude of African Americans about themselves and their country. The full employment reality brought about by the Second World War gave African Americans the opportunity to show their talents and productivity, equal to any other segment of the American society.
The Federal Employment Practices Commission, created by FDR's Executive Order, was a major advance that showed the ability to get around the Congressional obstacles and take progressive action. Social Security, the Wagner Act, recognition of collective bargaining, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance legislation, programs of public housing and educational opportunities and the GI Bill of Rights represented the most significant breakthrough assisting African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation itself.
President Roosevelt brought about a Supreme Court that was the core of the Court that decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. President Eisenhower and Earl Warren were two Republicans who made possible this historic breakthrough. Of course there were defeats, and of course there was a long way to go, and of course there is still a long way to go. However, the New Deal and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt mark major accomplishments of liberal democracy in our quest for social justice.
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