By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
By the mid-1930s, 45% of all Americans lived in poverty. That number was even higher for African Americans. Federal efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the ensuing Depression had mitigated the crisis for some by 1935, but hardly for all. The national unemployment rate hovered right around 20%.
The Letter from Reidsville
For African Americans, the situation was much worse. In Atlanta, Georgia, alone, 70% of African Americans were out of work. High unemployment exacerbated the prevailing condition of poverty. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt received a letter penned by an anonymous African American from Reidsville, Georgia.
Reidsville. Ga Oct 19th 1935
Hon. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
President of U. S.
Washington D. C.
Dear Mr. President
Would you please direct the people in charge of the releaf work in Georgia to issue the provisions + other supplies to our suffering colored people. I am sorry to worrie you with this Mr. President but hard as it is to believe the releaf officials here are using up most every thing that you send for them self + their friends. they give out the releaf supplies here on Wednesday of this week and give us black folks, each one, nothing but a few cans of pickle meet and to white folks they give blankets, bolts of cloth and things like that…
Roosevelt and the African American Community
The letter from Reidsville was just one of thousands that Black people sent to President Roosevelt, and a small portion of the several million pieces of mail that Americans of all stripes mailed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during his tenure. The mountain of messages that accumulated in the White House mail room reflected people’s desperation. It also demonstrated their sincere belief that Roosevelt wanted to help. But for African Americans, it evidenced something else as well: a dramatic shift in their political party affiliation.
African Americans had supported the Republican Party—the party that had ended slavery and extended voting rights to African Americans—for more than half a century. But in recent years, they had become increasingly disenchanted with the GOP, turned off by its newfound unwillingness to champion civil rights for African Americans.
In 1912, scholar activist W. E. B. Du Bois urged African Americans to cast their lot with Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, the Virginia-born former governor of New Jersey. He was a ‘liberal Southerner’, argued Du Bois. Which Wilson was—until he wasn’t.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Woodrow Wilson and White Supremacy
When Wilson introduced Jim Crow rules and regulations into the federal workplace, African Americans had seen enough. The titular head of the Democratic Party showed himself to be no different than those Southern Democrats erecting monuments to the Confederacy in the name of white supremacy.
There were concerns about Herbert Hoover when he ran for president in 1928. As Commerce Secretary in the previous administration, he had botched the federal government’s response to the 1927 Mississippi River flood, which destroyed 100,000 homes and displaced 637,000 people in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A great many of those impacted by the flood were poor Black farmers and laborers. During the recovery, Black victims of the flood suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of those who ran the relief camps. Some were forced into hard labor rebuilding levees, while others were not allowed to leave because white plantation owners didn’t want to lose ‘their workers’.
Just ahead of the 1928 election, Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender, a leading Black newspaper, printed a scathing editorial criticizing Hoover and hinting at a break with the GOP. Entitled ‘What We Want’, the editorial declared: “We want justice in America and we mean to get it. If 50 years of support to the Republican Party doesn’t get us justice, then we must of necessity shift our allegiance to new quarters.”
Hoover and the Economic Depression
But it was Hoover’s actions as president that fundamentally changed African Americans’ political calculus. Like many Americans, they were deeply troubled and terribly disappointed by his laissez-faire approach to the economic collapse.
When the Depression hit, they wanted him to take decisive action, to provide direct relief to those suffering the most. But instead, he did nothing.
Compounding matters, in March 1930, Hoover nominated an advocate of Black disenfranchisement to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court.
John J. Parker was the chief judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ten years earlier, while campaigning for governor of North Carolina, he had responded to an opponent’s charge that he favored Black voting rights with a full-throated defense of disenfranchisement.
Leaving Republican Party
Alarmed by the prospect of someone with such blatantly racist and unconstitutional views sitting on the bench, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a massive lobbying effort to block Parker’s Senate confirmation. At the time, it had been 36 years since the Senate rejected a Supreme Court nominee, so the odds were stacked against the civil rights group. But they forged an effective coalition with organized labor—Parker was not only anti-Black; he was also anti-union—and managed to defeat the judge’s confirmation by a single vote.
Reflecting on Hoover’s term in office, Robert Lee Vann, the influential editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely read Black newspapers in the country, concluded that it was time to leave the Republican Party: “My friends,” he wrote, “go turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall. The debt has been paid in full”.
Common Questions about Shifting Affiliations by African Americans
The 1927 Mississippi River flood destroyed 100,000 homes and displaced 637,000 people in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A great many of those impacted by the flood were poor Black farmers and laborers. During the recovery, Black victims of the flood suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of those who ran the relief camps.
It was Herbert Hoover’s actions as president that fundamentally changed African Americans’ political calculus. Like many Americans, they were deeply troubled and terribly disappointed by his laissez-faire approach to the economic collapse.
Alarmed by the prospect of someone with blatantly racist and unconstitutional views sitting on the bench, the NAACP launched a massive lobbying effort to block John J. Parker’s Senate confirmation.