By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
Although slavery had ended decades earlier, that enslaver’s mentality persisted. White Southerners felt entitled to the fruits of Black labor. All this was threatened overnight with the Social Security safety net coming into play. How?
An Endorsement of Roosevelt
The Social Security Act was brought in by Franklin D. Roosevelt after he won the 1928 election. Although ahead of the elections, Roosevelt had issues of his own, by Election Day, he had received endorsements from several prominent African Americans, and when the ballots were counted, he had garnered more votes from African Americans than any previous Democrat running for president.
The problem, of course, was that the Southern wing of the Democratic Party was composed of white supremacists who did not believe African Americans had any rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Drafting the Haitian Constitution
Haiti was the first independent Black nation in the American hemisphere; it embodied the Black revolutionary spirit. But when the US invaded Haiti in 1915 and later installed a government that put American interests above those of the Haitian people, plenty of African Americans were disappointed, and plenty more were disgusted. The Black newspaper, The Cleveland Gazette, blamed the occupation—and specifically the new constitution—for ushering in “the bloodiest chapter in all of the history of Haiti”.
Yet, in the elections, although Roosevelt didn’t win a majority of Black ballots (that would not happen until 1936, when he won 71% of the Black vote), he received enough to make clear that the political realignment of the Black community was well underway.
In fact, 1932 was the last time most African Americans voted for a Republican president. From then until now, African Americans have voted Democratic, not out of blind loyalty or political ignorance, but because they have seen more value in Democratic policies and politicians, imperfect as they may be, than in Republican ones.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Federal Emergency Relief Act
During Roosevelt’s first 100 days as president, he signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act. The law created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a granting agency to the states. During the agency’s two-year existence, it disbursed over $3 billion in assistance. States used this money to create work and education programs for the unemployed, and to make direct cash payments to the unemployable. Some 20 million people benefitted directly from its grants.
But the agency’s reliance on state and local authorities to distribute relief disadvantaged African Americans. In places like Reidsville, Georgia, white authorities brazenly discriminated against African Americans, who got “nothing but a few cans of pickle meet”, while whites received “blankets, bolts of cloth and things like that”.
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration
Similar problems dogged the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). When the Depression hit, the price of agricultural goods plummeted, forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers onto relief. The AAA was created to regulate crop yields. Reducing the amount of goods brought to market pushed the price of those goods higher. To lower crop yields, the agency paid farmers to leave a portion of their land fallow or to plow up crops already in the ground.
The money that farmers received for not planting or harvesting was significant. For large farmers, it meant turning an annual profit. For sharecroppers and tenant farmers, it meant climbing out of poverty. But too often, money meant for Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers never made it to them. The government sent their checks to the white people on whose land they labored. They had a legal obligation to turn the money over, but too often, they never did. They kept the checks for themselves.
Local oversight meant there were no consequences for these illegal and immoral actions.
The Social Security Act
The AAA and the Federal Emergency Relief Act were supposed to include African Americans. When they didn’t, it was because local white administrators discriminated against them. The story of the Social Security Act was different.
The Social Security Act of 1935 was the centerpiece of the New Deal’s social safety net legislation. It provided public assistance to those in need, unemployment compensation for those out of work, and income security for the elderly. Roosevelt touted it as economic security for everyone. But it wasn’t. Most African Americans were intentionally excluded, sacrificed by the president on the altar of political expediency.
Controlling Black Labor
The most triggering factor for the white Southerners was that the Social Security safety net threatened their ability to control Black labor. It offered exploited Black workers a modicum of autonomy. They could escape the cotton field and the kitchen by relying on Social Security until they were able to find work that paid a fair wage.
But it wasn’t to be. Southern Democrats refused to support the legislation unless it excluded agricultural laborers and domestic workers, the two occupational categories with the highest concentrations of African Americans. Indeed, 65% of African Americans worked in fields or homes. Unfortunately, to ensure passage of the legislation, the act ultimately ended up excluding these occupations, trapping millions of Black workers in exploitative labor arrangements for another generation.
Common Questions about the Social Security Act
When the US invaded Haiti in 1915 and later installed a government that put American interests above those of the Haitian people, plenty of African Americans were disappointed
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, in order to lower crop yields, paid farmers to leave a portion of their land fallow or to plow up crops already in the ground.
Southern Democrats refused to support the Social Security Act unless it excluded agricultural laborers and domestic workers, the two occupational categories with the highest concentrations of African Americans.