Van Gosse What the New Deal Accomplished

The Working Class Movement and the New Deal

Download 76.66 Kb.
Size76.66 Kb.
1   2   3

The Working Class Movement and the New Deal

All of these books bring us closer to understanding the role of various social movements in bringing the New Deal into existence, and pushing it towards much more far-reaching reforms than FDR or any of his "brain trust" originally envisioned. The liberal defenders of the New Deal and its New Left critics were both correct in stressing the lack of forethought behind many of the New Deal's most famous initiatives. If one puts the working class movements of the 1930s at the center of the narrative, however, it becomes clear that in many cases the Roosevelt Administration was in fact responding to popular pressure, attempting to mediate and control a genuine upsurge. Increasingly, as time went on, it sought to ride the force of the mass movement spawned by the Depression to build a new Democratic Party coalition, with considerable success. This analysis allows us to grant equal space and importance to the insurgence of militant activists, and to the practical exigencies of the President and his collaborators in Congress seeking to hold the Democratic Party together. Only if we put these two stories together, so we can see how the New Deal is finally the product of a continual interaction, involving both confrontation and collaboration, between the working-class movements and the Administration, will we arrive at a balanced view of the 1930s.

Three movements stand out as directly influencing the key New Deal programs. First was the radical movement of the unemployed which surfaced in early 1930. Through "hunger marches," constant lobbying and local protest, it forced the issue of relief for the unemployed onto the national policy agenda. Second was the movement to provide pensions for the aged, led by a California doctor named Townsend, which made the idea of universally-available government pensions so popular that Democrats adopted it. Finally, and most important, was the movement for industrial unionism embodied in a new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The unemployed movement first became visible on a national scale in March 1930, when newly-formed Unemployed Councils, initiated by Communist Party activists, appeared in many cities. They drew on the sheer panic experienced by the thousands of able-bodied men thrown out of work by the stock-market panic of the fall of 1929. Under the slogan "Work or Wages," nationwide demonstrations were called for March 6, the first major popular protest against the Depression. Shocking police, politicians, and middle-class observers, it was reliably reported that a million participated in major cities across the nation, often leading to violent encounters with police. Over the rest of 1930, the Unemployed Councils discovered a whole new style of organizing, based not on the workplace or mass protest, but on neighborhood activism, such as intervening in the eviction of a working-class family for nonpayment of rent, and moving the furniture back into the home. In Chicago's black Southside ghetto, this became so common that whenever city marshals appeared to carry out an eviction, the cry would go out, "Get the Reds!"

As time went on, the Unemployed Councils and similar groups across the country learned not only how to protest, but the more subtler techniques of lobbying to get destitute families what they needed via mass delegations to relief offices. When a family could get no assistance, or not enough, community pressure made a real difference. The slogans changed to encompass women and children, as well as male breadwinners--"Don't Starve, Fight!" becoming the permanent demand. The most spectacular activities of the Unemployed Councils were the Hunger Marches. Starting in 1930, and escalating thereafter, these huge demands for immedate relief provoked heavy repression. On March 7, 1932, at the Ford Hunger March in Flint, a crowd of thousands was fired upon by police with machine guns. Four organizers from the Young Communist League were killed, and thousands of unemployed Ford workers and their families attended their funeral. Eventually, this helped build the core of what became the United Auto Workers union.

The most famous protest of the unemployed, of course, was the Bonus March on the White House in the summer of 1932. In the 1920s, Congress had voted special bonuses for World War I veterans, payable in 1945. Many veterans felt that it was quite reasonable to demand earlier payment, given the pressures of the Depression. But when 30,000 of them marched into Washington that July, they were imagined to be a revolutionary threat, camping out on the Anacostia Flats with their families in cardboard shanties. Eventually, President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to disperse the Bonus Marchers. Troops and tanks moved in, burning the shantytown and beating the remaining veterans in front of newsreel cameras, which brought the shocking images to a beleaguered nation. An indelible image was created of government indifference, which many at the time credited as adding to the massive anti-Hoover vote which swept Franklin Roosevelt into the White House despite the studied vagueness of his program.

The Unemployed Councils may have acted as a very radical, street-oriented radical group, recruiting jobless men and women into community defense, but they had a clear legislative agenda. By the mid-1930s, they had become a powerful national coalition, the Workers Alliance, drawing in activists from various political movements. From early on, they hammered home the need for a national program of unemployed insurance. In the context of Hoover's America, this was an illegitimate government giveaway that would only encourage idleness. By 1934, the Councils were strong enough to get a newly-elected Democratic Congressman, John T. Barnard, to introduce a bill requiring "social insurance" for the unemployed. Eventually, the basic idea pushed since 1930 by the "Reds" in the Unemployed Councils was incorporated in the epochal Social Security Act of 1935.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a program of unemployment insurance is something taken for granted, and many people have sufficient familial resources to fall back on if they lose a job. But in the 1930s, a far smaller percentage of the population had what we would call "middle class" status, no more than 15%, according to polls taken in 1938. For most families, unemployment for more than a few months, in the context of mass joblessness and shuttered factories, meant moving in with relatives, sending children out to work, and living on handouts, at best. At worst, it led to familial dissolution, or going on the road, or living in a "Hooverville"--the fight for sheer survival immortalized in the epic novel of the Thirties, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Thus, the safety cushion provided by unemployment insurance, which seems so meagre today, was a life-raft for many families.

Social Security, a self-funded old-age pension, was a response to both an obvious need and a very different kind of social movement. Old people faced the worst bind of all (other than children) at a time of economic misery. Unable to compete for jobs with desperate and able-bodied younger men and women, and often simply too old to work, the aged were presumed to be the responsibility of their immediate kin. But what if that kin themselves faced destitution? In the midst of confusion, a California doctor named Townsend came up with what seemed like a marvelous solution to both the problem of poverty among senior citizens, and general economic ill-health. Asserting that the problem was one of under-consumption, Dr. Townsend proposed to give all citizens over age 65 a minimum monthly pension of $200, on one condition--that the money must entirely be spent in the next month. This pump-priming strategy would, it was claimed, radically increase consumer demand for all sorts of vital goods, and in short order get the economy moving again.

The Townsend movement was extraordinarily successful. In a relatively short space of time, thousands of Townsend clubs sprang up all over the country and ten million people signed petitions in support of his simple plan. The key factor in persuading Democratic Party politicians to enact some form of old-age pensions was the obvious fact that these angry senior citizens were voters. Both in the 1930s and since, older people would constitute one of the most reliable bulwarks of the Democratic Party, a kind of `invisible army' for social democratic ideas symbolized by the remarkable career of Florida liberal Claude Pepper in Congress, stretching from the Roosevelt to the Reagan Eras. The Townsend movement, and the sudden discovery by Democrats of a vast new constituency-in-the-making, provides one of the clearest, most direct examples of how a social movement could spur an immediate policy shift of sweeping proportions.

The unemployed, seniors and other insurgent groups such as farmers were all important spurs to the policy agenda that over time took shape as the New Deal. However, all of these movement were dwarfed, in the final instance, by the explosion of labor activism the coincided with the New Deal's first phase, undergirded its second, more radical stage in 1935, and then moved forward to completion as the New Deal crested and waned. By the late 1930s, a renascent labor movement had been incorporated into the center of the New Deal Coalition and the Democratic Party. Briefly, at least, it seemed as if the Democrats were on their way to becoming a labor party on the European model, a hope that would be dashed by postwar developments.

To understand the scope of the changes within labor, its vast growth as a public force, and its radically increased clout in national affairs, it is necessary to sketch the basic contours of the labor movement before the New Deal. As mentioned earlier, it was a movement shaped largely by its inability to penetrate the heartland of American industry, the steel, auto, electrical, rubber and chemical plants that fueled the world's leading industrial economy. What this meant was that the union movement was isolated from the majority of the working class, and largely represented a "labor aristocracy" of skilled workers with conservative tendencies. Until the 1930s, a very high proportion of union members (and most union leaders) were native-born craftsmen of Northwestern European, Protestant backgrounds, while the majority of working class people were unskilled factory workers--immigrants or the children of immigrants, mainly Catholics, Orthodox Christians or Jews. This deep cultural split, stretching from the shopfloor to the local churches to taverns, had significant political ramifications. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was led by conservative "business unionists" who frankly stated that they did not believe the unskilled industrial workers could ever be unionized. Their attention was focused on protecting the privileges and jurisdictions of the exclusive crafts, which typically represented only a small minority of workers in a given workplace. Even on the railroads, where unions had achieved their greatest strength, fourteen different "brotherhoods" jealously guarded their control over different jobs. From the beginning of the century, the great fight in the labor movement had been over the question of "industrial unionism," which meant bringing all of the workers in a particular shop or plant into a single union, regardless of skill, ethnicity, race, seniority or even sex. To craft unionists, this was a direct challenge to their privileged authority. They feared being submerged in the much larger mass of the unskilled--whom they equated with the unwashed and illiterate.

The AFL's approach to politics resembled its "business unionist" approach of defending practical gains by skilled workers, and ignoring the greater needs of the unskilled mass of factory operatives. Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL for nearly forty years, summed up the Federation's program in one word--"More," meaning more for his members, and little or no interest in anyone else, such as the women or blacks excluded by union bylaws and traditions. In national politics, the AFL tended to favor the Democrats, but its approach was cautious and its influence limited. At all times, it sought the mantle of respectability and legitimacy, rejecting any association with radical programs of social reform. During the 1920s, as American capitalism rode a business boom, organized labor stagnated. The AFL began to seem almost irrelevant under Gompers' unimaginative successor, William Green. By the Depression's beginning it was a minor force outside of major cities where craft locals exercised considerable control over the building trades, railroad yards and a few other jobs, and maintained some power in Democratic machines.

Understanding the quiescent attitude of the AFL, and its decline throughout the 1920s, helps explain why organized labor mounted no significant challenge in the early years of the Depression. It led no protests, nor did it organize any major national campaign for relief, leaving that ground almost entirely to Communists and other radicals. No historian credits the AFL with any significant place in Roosevelt's sweeping victory in 1932, or the even greater Democratic Party triumph in 1934. In fact, until 1933-34, organized labor is almost entirely absent from the various chronicles of the Depression. To most observers, it seemed merely one more interest group to be assuaged, and certainly less significant than the National Association of Manufacturers or the Chamber of Commerce. Other than a few intense local strikes led by breakaway radical unions from the Communist-ledTrade Union Unity League, no major strike action took place until 1934--perhaps not surprising given the intense competition for jobs.

In the first two years of the Roosevelt Administration, one of the New Deal's earliest, most controversial and apparently least successful initiatives indicates the submerged relationship between a reform government in power, and a social movement waiting to be born. Roosevelt's initial attempt to re-start the American economy was the grandly named National Recovery Administration (NRA). In principle, the NRA was supposed to embody a partnership between government, private enterprise and the public, including organized labor, working together in councils set up in each major industry to stimulate production and employment. In practice, it essentially licensed the largest corporations to get together in cartels and set prices, an activity otherwise strictly illegal. The labor representatives to the NRA's industry councils, even supposing the AFL was prepared to take an aggressive stance, had little power and were easily outvoted.

But the original NRA legislation pushed through Congress in the famous "100 days" of Roosevelt's first term contained an obscure provision that acted as a catalyst for an unprecedented grassroots awakening of America's workers. Clause "7A" of the legislation establishing the NRA specifically guaranteed employees the right to organize. Never before had Congress taken such an unequivocal stance in favor of labor. Across the country desperate workers took this not as a vague sop to the AFL--as originally intended--but as an explicit endorsement of unionization. The phrase "the President wants you to join a union" was taken up and repeated by organizers, and even found its way onto posters.

Spurred by the NRA, workers flooded into the AFL from 1933 on. In many cases, the Federation had nowhere to put them. The AFL only recognized workers who possessed a specific craft or recognized job title (like boilermakers, machinists or brewery truck drivers). Unskilled or semiskilled employees in large factories had to be grouped into temporary "federal locals," while the Federation tried to figure out which craft union could take them. But this institutional roadblack did not matter in the end, as workers kept striking and forming ad-hoc union locals in textile mills and steel factories, assuming that the labor movement wanted them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

By 1934, this bottom-up insurgency assumed a scope that to some suggested revolutionary possibilities. Workers seemed almost anxious to walk out, and refused to back down in the face of massive repression. 1.5 million struck that year, despite the fact that unemployment in some urban centers approached half of the workforce. Though labor battles took place all parts of the country, three local strikes served to underline the new dynamic--the "general strikes" led by unabashed radicals in three industrial centers, Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. First, what is a general strike? A strategy well-understood in Europe and Latin America, where it has sometimes been used to bring down governments, a general strike means that all workers in a city, region or even a whole country stop work. Obviously, this constitutes a great threat to authority in general, and has vast potency as a tactic. For a variety of reasons, however, there have been few general strikes in American history, and even those few (as in Seattle in 1919) did not last long.

Things were different in 1934. In Toledo, a key center of auto parts production where a walk-out could close down much of the industry, the strike began in the Auto-Lite factory and spread throughout the city when strikers were killed by National Guardsmen. Organizers from the socialist American Workers Party played a major role in making the strike general. In Minneapolis, an armed confrontation developed between the city's teamsters, under the leadership of dissident Marxists from the Communist League of America, and the city's businessmen and mayor. Again, street battles led not to the strike's collapse but to the shutdown of the city's business as a whole. Finally, in the most spectacular instance, San Francisco's longshoremen struck, led by an Australian named Harry Bridges, who was very close to the Communist Party. The dockworkers faced down machine guns along the Embarcadero, suffering many casualties, but won their point. In each of these cities, the workers and their unions won major victories--even if only the right to have a union, and attempt to bargain. The biggest effort of the year, however, was a brief general strike of more than 300,000 textile workers in mills stretching from New England to Georgia, which ended in a crushing defeat. The combined effect of this unprecedented militance demonstrated the potential of the most exploited employees and the great obstacles facing the trade union movement

There is little question that the strike wave of 1934, and the quality of employer resistance, including everything from massive espionage operations against unions to large, well-armed private armies like the notorious Ford Service Department, led directly to the Wagner Act. In early 1935, no serious observer could envision anything but prolonged, bitter and bloody class struggle, escalating in ways that most feared to imagine, unless something was done. That is what the general strikes, the spontaneous insurgency overwhelming the old-guard AFL, and the failed textile strike all implied. In that context, Senator Wagner (only reluctantly backed at the last minute by FDR) proposed a way out of a terrible impasse, a new social contract--not out of sentimental liberal idealism, and certainly not because of secret revolutionary tendencies, but simply because something had to be done. The Wagner Act, the NLRB and a new government-regulated and enforced right to collective bargaining was a compromise, then, but one that established not just organized labor--still very weak--but more importantly, America's immigrant-based working-class as a serious political actor.

In turn, the strikes of 1934 and the Wagner Act broke the dam within labor itself. At all levels, rebellion had been growing against the domination of "business unionists" and the extraordinarily cautious regime of President William Green. The demand for industrial unionism, uniting all workers regardless of craft, skill, ethnicity, religion, race or gender, had simmered for two generations, and now came to the fore. At the AFL' s 1935 convention in Atlantic City, John L. Lewis, the formerly conservative and autocratic president of the United Mine Workers, challenged the craft unionists physically, punching Carpenters Union President William Hutcheson in the mouth. Immediately afterwards, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers formed the Committee on Industrial Organization (or CIO; the name was changed to "Congress on Industrial Organization" when they left the AFL formally a year later) to actively promote new unions in the mass production industries.

The new CIO rapidly became the center of the working-class social movement that had been growing from many different sources since 1930. In steel towns, auto plants, oil fields and on the killing floors of meatpacking houses, it became a magnet for a cohort of grassroots activists that had been persisted since the failed union drives of the 'Teens. Many of them were middle-aged skilled workers from the British Isles, men with long years of shopfloor militance behind them who were recognized as informal leaders by younger workers of different nationalities. Small leftwing independent unions had existed outside of the AFL for years, and had mushroomed with new members since the NRA gave public sanction to unions. In effect, they were a movement waiting to happen, through the lean years of the 1920s and the chaos and desperation of the Depression's early years. Indeed, if the AFL had shown any willingness of its own, it could have rapidly have built national industrial unions. By 1936, however, the initiative had passed to the new CIO, which survived largely thanks to money and staff provided by John L. Lewis' Mine Workers.

In early and mid-1936, a crucial election year as the New Deal and FDR came before voters, the CIO was mostly a hope and a possibility, while nearly all of the nation's press showered vituperation on the Roosevelt Administration and reported that his Republican opponent, Kansas Governor Al Landon, was ahead in the polls. By mid-1937, the CIO had defeated the two most powerful corporations in America, and was signing up the workers in America's major industries as fast as membership cards could be printed, while FDR had won the most smashing victory in American electoral history. What is the relation between these two events?

The decisive event in the growth of the CIO, and one of the most remarkable in the history of American social protest, was the occupation by workers of a vast General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan in late 1936. This "sit-down" strike was a drawn-out siege lasting many weeks, involving massive community mobilization and intense national interest. The crucial question became: could the strikers hold out? Would they be evicted by police? In the end, Michigan's Democratic Governor Frank Murphy refused to send in the National Guard, and the strikers successfully repulsed assaults by local police forces. As the sit-downs threatened to spread throughout GM's network of plants, the company with great reluctance agreed to recognize the CIO's United Auto Workers union, and "industrial unionism" finally became a real possibility in America. Over the next few months, more than 400,000 workers engaged in similar "sit-downs," as militant unionism spread like wildfire, and the CIO took on the aura of a great cause.

The most significant indication of how the tide had turned in American industrial relations was the reaction of the U.S. Steel corporation, which had dominated the nation's economy since it was created by J.P. Morgan in the 1890s. For two generations, U.S. Steel had defeated unions in a series of bitter, bloody battles ranging from Homestead in 1892 to the 1919 industry-wide strike. Now, powerfully impressed by the CIO's determination and its new tactics, it offered to meet with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and settle matters peacably. General Electric followed suit, recognizing the militantly leftwing United Electrical Workers (UE) rather than face an all-out war.

These battles took place before, during and just after the crucial 1936 elections, when the Democratic Party's "New Deal Coalition" triumphantly came together, sweeping all but two states. During that election, the CIO threw all of its resources into securing FDR's re-election via a newly-created entity, Labor's Non-Partisan League. Though FDR had publicly condemned the Flint sit-down, he maintained a hands-off pose, and privately urged settlement on all parties. In light of past history, this was a marked advance: not since Theodore Roosevelt had the White House been officially neutral, effectively giving organized labor a co-belligerent status with corporate America.

The Democrats stance of guarded support, and sometimes open embrace, of a labor movement at the height of its militance, did not arrive in a vacuum. In fact, the Democrats actively feared serious electoral challenges from their left. To understand the significance of the historic alliance of the labor movement to the Democratic Party, which was locked in place in 1936 and persists to this day, we must look at the meteoric rise of radical third party efforts from 1934 on. Historians repeatedly cite Roosevelt's trepidation over a bid by Louisiana's eccentric populist Senator Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in late 1935. In fact, much more clearcut challenges to the Democrats came from bona fide radicals with established credentials. In the upper Midwest, a strong regional tradition of third-party progressivism revived. The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota effectively took over the state, electing governors and Members of Congress. In Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette's old Progressive Party surfaced again, led by other members of his family. Perhaps most startling, however, was the effort in California led by the veteran radical novelist Upton Sinclair. In 1934, he organized a campaign called End Poverty in California (EPIC), won the Democratic primary for governor, and narrowly lost the general election after intense redbaiting. Numerous other examples sent a very clear message to traditional Democrats like FDR that they needed to move quickly to secure their working class support, and at the right moment an alliance with the CIO sent that message.

The evidence from California, Wisconsin, Minnesota and numerous other states and cities suggests a hypothesis about the relation of grassroots activism to securing significant changes in how government operates, including the major political parties. It is disarmingly simple: in an electoral democracy, quantifiable power is ultimately the one thing that counts. Only when the parties, those forces able to determine government decisions through control of the executive and legislative machinery, see the social movements as crucial allies able to either deliver or withdraw votes will real change be made.

The various leftwing progressive efforts at the state and local level convinced the Democrats that they needed to cover their left flank. Having alienated most of the middle classes, they could no longer equivocate but rather needed to incorporate (or co-opt) the mass working-class movement, in particular that led by organized labor with its reliable structures for mobilization. There was a clear risk of losing voters on the right, which explains FDR's attempts to keep conservative Southern whites in the party by stressing themes of economic, not racial, justice. But the forty years since the election of 1896 had demonstrated repeatedly that the existing Democratic base was not sufficient for a solid majority in Congress or to hold the White House, which FDR won in 1932 largely by default. More than at any other time, the Democrats needed the social movements; conversely, those movements and in particular the unions, still facing a solid phalanx of opposition from the judiciary and business, desperately needed government aid, or simply neutrality.

The years from 1935 to 1938, then, mark a sea-change. The Democratic Party became what scholars call the "natural party of government" because of its firm lock on the votes of working people of all regions, races, religions and ethnicities. The CIO became an entirely new force in American life, growing from a dissident leadership caucus of the AFL in 1935 to a new, rival national labor federation of four million members only three years later. Most of the diverse social movements of the 1930s gathered under the CIO's banner. But 1938 was also an end in a sense. The last significant pieces of New Deal legislation were enacted that year (including the Fair Labor Standards Act). Angered by FDR's attempt to change the composition of the Supreme Court, which kept declaring major bills un-Constitutional, and fearing the radical drift in national events, a new rightwing coalition emerged in Congress linking Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. This coldly pragmatic alliance across party lines would stymie major reform legislation (from perennial attempts to create some form of national health insurance to meaningful public employment programs) for the next fifty years. The relationship of the CIO and the organized working-class movement to the Democratic Party in the mid- and later Thirties--the most sustained period of governmental activism in modern U.S. history--demonstrates that one cannot separate strikes or protests from the mainstream of electoral politics, because at crucial moments electoral equations necessarily enter into how social movements are accepted, accommodated or repressed.

The best example of what happened to a dynamic social movement when it lacked a meaningful connection to the levers of political power can be seen in the fate of the Southern wing of New Deal radicalism. For many years, both scholars and the general public accepted the myth of a Democratic Party-dominated, white-ruled, "Solid South," impervious to radical currents, "frozen" in reaction and resentment of Civil War defeat. The evidence for this consensus seemed overwhelming: it was a rare occasion when a Republican was elected to any office; the black electorate could be counted in four digits in most states, despite the fact that the majority of American's 15 million black people lived below the Mason-Dixon line; the white electorate was also drastically reduced by the poll tax and other mechanisms.

There is no doubt that the South represented a fearsome conservative monolith, from the 1890s through the Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and 60s. Single-party white rule was backed up by informal paramilitary structures, including the Ku Klux Klan, but more often simply by the accepted right of any white man or group of men to discipline black people as they saw fit. Every year saw dozens of public lynchings and uncounted beatings, floggings and simple orders to leave town; quite a few Southern towns simply permitted no blacks at all as residents. Yet, despite the absence of any genuine rule of law, well-organized radical movements did surge briefly through the Deep South at the height of the Depression. The fate of these movements, lacking any support, protection or even benevolent neutrality from state or federal governments, is an important indicator of the relation of social movements to organized politics.

The South's most important movement of the Depression years was not the CIO--which could gain barely a foothold, and did little to challenge segregation--but efforts to organize the poorest of the poor, the sharecroppers and tenants, both black and white, who were the overwhelming majority of rural Southerners. Southern farm families in the 1930s still lived in a condition of bare subsistence reminiscent of peasants in Latin America or the poorest areas of Eastern Europe. Walker Evans' famous photographs of rail-thin children in clothes made of feed sacks, and parents in shacks with wooden floors (collected in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) captured their tenuous dignity. The fact that Evans' photographs were of white people only underscored the legacy of poverty shared by the rural poor of both races. The organizers who went into the cotton fields of the "Black Belt" (a name originally derived from the rich darkness of the soil) in the Thirties hoped to bring black and white together, but most of their successes came among black sharecroppers. Though here and there some poor whites joined, the color line proved a formidable barrier.

Two organizations stand out, the Sharecroppers Union (SCU), based in Alabama, and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), whose strength lay in Arkansas. In each case, dedicated young radicals, white and black, undertook clandestine and extremely dangerous missions into rural counties, and connected up with the most militant local farmers, usually black. Organizations were formed which enrolled thousands, and forced planters to raise wages and improve working conditions. In both Arkansas and Alabama, however, repression swiftly followed. Gunfights with sheriff's posses led to casualties on both sides, and the jailing of local leaders for long terms. Within a few years the SCU and the STFU, despite considerable national publicity, were broken. Minus votes, and therefore lacking leverage in local or state politics, there was no protection against police or mob violence. The development of a significant voting base of poor and working-class African-Americans did not come for another forty years in much of the South. Until that point, white politicians and white police could act as they saw fit to protect the economic interests and social supremacy of white people.


The New Deal coalition reached its fruition in FDR's second term, and held its own throughout the war years until 1945. There were no significant legislative reforms after 1938, however, and only one major new government initiative in the direction of greater social justice. In 1941, Roosevelt issued an Executive Order requiring fair employment practices in the millions of new defense jobs opening up even before Pearl Harbor. This groundbreaking action was the direct response to the threat of a mass "March on Washington," led by black union leader A. Philip Randolph. In a sense, Randolph's daring gambit was both a fitting climax to the Thirties' legacy of militant direct action, and a harbinger of how the axis of social change would shift in the future towards racial equality. It was no accident that when the actual "March on Washington" took place more than two decades later, Randolph occupied a place of special honor on the podium, as a visible reminder of the continuity between the New Deal and latter-day liberalism. But before liberalism was to discover its radical potential, and announce its intention to make all of America a "Great Society," it would first undergo a period of prolonged stasis and complacency, lasting from the late 1940s well into the 1960s.

Download 76.66 Kb.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright © 2022
send message

    Main page