Franklin D. Roosevelt: The American Franchise

Franklin D. Roosevelt: The American Franchise

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's smashing victory in the 1936 presidential election revealed that the American political landscape had shifted. With FDR at its head, the Democratic Party put together a formidable coalition whose main components were lower-income groups in the great cities—African Americans, union members, and ethnic and religious minorities, many from recent immigrant groups—and the traditional source of Democratic strength, "the Solid South." Roosevelt carried every former Confederate state all four times he ran, but no Democrat has done so since 1944, FDR's final race. This "New Deal coalition," as it came to be known, powered the Democratic Party for the next thirty years. Its strong hold on these voters was due largely to the social, political, economic, and cultural changes wrought by the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II.

African Americans

One important demographic change underlay the experience of African Americans during the Roosevelt years. The migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North, which began in 1910, continued in the 1930s and accelerated in the 1940s during World War II. As a result, black Americans during the Roosevelt years lived for the most part either in the urban North or in the rural South, although the Depression chased increasingly large numbers of blacks to southern cities as well. In the North, blacks encountered de facto segregation, racism, and discrimination in housing and public services; nevertheless, they were able to vote and had better job opportunities. In the South, blacks were disfranchised, lived under a segregationist regime enforced by violence, and found fewer avenues for escape from crushing poverty.

No matter where they lived, African Americans were especially hard hit by the Depression. In the rural South, blacks found it increasingly difficult even to survive. In Northern and Southern cities, blacks saw their jobs—which were usually of the entry level, low paying, and unskilled or semi-skilled variety—disappear, either consumed by the faltering economy or snatched up by desperate unemployed whites. By 1932, over half of blacks in Southern cities were unemployed. The employment situation for African Americans in the urban North was only marginally better for the growing black middle class. In Harlem, black ownership or management of property dropped precipitously in the first half of the 1930s.

Did the New Deal improve the lot of African Americans? The record is mixed. The aid provided by the New Deal to America's poor—black and white—was insufficient. Racism reared its head in the New Deal, often because federal programs were administered through local authorities or community leaders who brought their own racial biases to the table. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) offered white landowners cash for leaving their fields fallow, which they happily accepted; they, however, did not pass on their government checks to the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who actually worked the land. Even in the North, blacks found that New Deal programs did not always treat them as well as whites.

There can be little doubt, however, that the New Deal in many instances was a boon to African Americans. In one sense, this was a question of degree. Aid to African Americans prior to 1933, especially in the South, had been nearly non-existent; the federal help that did come with the New Deal, therefore, was significant. In addition, New Deal agencies like the WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) grew more sensitive throughout the 1930s to the needs of African Americans, largely because of the leadership of Roosevelt appointees at those agencies. Indeed, African Americans found significant allies in the administration, from Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to the First Lady herself, Eleanor Roosevelt. Enough blacks, like Mary McLeod Bethune, found themselves in leadership positions that there was even talk of a "black Cabinet" of FDR advisers.

Roosevelt's approach towards civil rights legislation was janus-faced. FDR spoke out against lynching, found the poll tax reprehensible, and, at the prodding of his wife, met in the White House with African American civil rights leaders. FDR, though, refused to make an anti-lynching bill a priority, though, in truth, opposition to the legislation was so strong that it never had a chance. In his defense, FDR claimed—and he was probably correct—that endorsing legislation which threatened the South's racial order would cost him the votes of Southerners in Congress—support he desperately needed.

World War II accelerated many of the trends in African American life that became clear during the 1930s. Blacks continued to move from rural areas to cities, and more than half a million moved to the North during the war years. The war brought a surge in public and private spending that in turn spurred job creation and created a full-employment economy—which meant that blacks found both more and better jobs. On the other hand, the growing presence of blacks in the urban industrial North exacerbated racial tensions with whites. The result was sometimes deadly violence, as in the riots that shook Detroit in 1943.

Spurred by the U.S. crusade against Nazism, black advocates of civil rights called for a "double V" campaign that would bring victories against fascism abroad and racism at home. The war years saw the growth of black organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Committee (later Congress) for Racial Equality, dedicated to winning civil rights at home. Blacks even met with some success; during the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph threatened the Roosevelt administration with a 100,000 person "March on Washington" if discrimination was not ended in the military and the defense industries. Roosevelt capitulated and issued an Executive Order creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).

Roosevelt's performance, then was deeply flawed, but blacks rendered their own verdict when in 1936 they abandoned their historic allegiance to the Republicans, the party of Abe Lincoln, and moved in large numbers over to the Democrats, the party of FDR, where they have been ever since. One of Roosevelt's severest critics, Ralph Bunch, said the FDR era "represented a radical break with the past," and W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that Roosevelt "gave the American Negro a kind of recognition in political life which the Negro had never before received."


The experiences of American women during the Roosevelt years, like the experiences of African Americans, were marked by both victories and setbacks. In one respect, women achieved notable success: in unprecedented numbers, they began to fill important positions in the federal government. FDR appointed Francis Perkins Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to serve in the cabinet. Besides Perkins, women also gained important upper-level administrative positions in a variety of New Deal agencies and programs. In addition, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the most active and prominent woman ever to hold that honorary title.

Since several New Deal programs aimed to provide relief and social welfare—areas in which women reformers had a long history of expertise—it comes as little surprise that these same women found their way into New Deal agencies. The New Deal, however, was not designed to help women in particular, even if some of its programs, like the WPA and Aid to Dependent Children, did at least benefit women indirectly. The New Deal's chief goal, rather, was the resuscitation of the "family wage," a term that assumed the husband was the family's primary wage-earner and the wife ran the home.

As a result, many New Deal relief, employment, and welfare programs were intended primarily for men and offered fewer benefits to American women. In some cases, this targeting was explicit: the 1933 Economy Act prohibited the federal government from hiring members of the same family, which meant women lost their jobs; the NRA allowed employers to pay women less than men, even for doing the same job. In some cases, sex discrimination was more subtle: the Social Security Act did not provide for domestics, large percentages of whom were women. It should also be noted that sex and race discrimination intersected in many New Deal programs, a dynamic that left African American women outside of the already leaky protective umbrella of the New Deal.

World War II, though, marked an important change in women's lives in at least two ways. First, marriage rates spiked in the early 1940s, rising slowly through the second half of the 1930s after the doldrums of the early Depression. These newlyweds would provide the United States with a "baby boom" during those first several years following the end of the war. Second, government and private spending during the war produced jobs, many of which—because men were increasingly joining the military—went to women. Indeed, women joined the workforce in such unprecedented numbers—19 million undertook wage-work at some point during the war years—that "Rosie the Riveter," the iconic female laborer publicized by the War Manpower Commission, became a staple of wartime propaganda.

Mexican Americans

Between 1900 and 1930, the number of persons of Mexican descent living in the American southwest jumped from 375,000 to well over 1.1 million. Mexicans and Mexican Americans found employment, as well as back-breaking and low-paying work, on large farms. The Great Depression, however, reduced the need for farm labor and caused unemployment among Mexicans living in the United States and Mexican Americans to soar. At the behest of politicians and community leaders in the southwest looking to solve the region's unemployment problem, the U.S. government forcibly sent nearly 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans (some of them citizens) to Mexico. Those Mexican and Mexican Americans who remained in the United States faced grinding poverty and little help from the New Deal, which too often failed to help agricultural workers and people of color.

America's entry into World War II, however, marked a watershed moment in the history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Roughly 350,000 Mexican Americans would serve in the American military. On the home front, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, like blacks and women, took advantage of new and more lucrative employment opportunities in military-related industries. They moved increasingly into urban areas to work these better paying jobs, though they were not always welcomed with open arms. This racial and ethnic hostility erupted in June 1943 when rampaging American sailors attacked young Mexican Americans (known as "zoot-suiters," in reference to their distinctive style of dress) in the streets of Los Angeles. The police and military refused to intervene in what became known as the "zoot suit riots." The police, in fact, arrested more Mexicans and Mexican Americans than sailors.

The war had one more important consequence: it reversed the flow of immigrants between the United States and Mexico yet again. The agricultural sector in the southwest needed Mexican labor to meet war-time demands, and the U.S. government worked out an agreement with Mexico for what would be called the "bracero" program, in which Mexicans came to the United States as temporary workers. The bracero program, which brought more than 200,000 Mexicans to the United States (the majority to California) during the war, remained in place until the 1960s.


Between 1933 and 1945, union membership grew from less than 3 million workers to 14 million workers, a number which accounted for nearly thirty percent of all American workers. This fantastic growth resulted largely from changes in American politics and economics wrought by the Great Depression and the New Deal. The passage of the NIRA in 1933, with its "Section 7a" that gave workers the rights to organize and bargain collectively, accelerated the growth of union membership. After the Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA in 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which strengthened labor's rights vis a vis management, and gave real enforcement powers to the National Labor Relations Board. Workers and unions now had tangible evidence that the American government stood behind them.

When Roosevelt came to power, almost no factory worker in America belonged to a union. In no other developed country in the Western world was that true. But during the FDR years, a new labor coalition, the congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), unionized the steel, automobile, textile, and other large industries. The CIO, headed by John L. Lewis, chief of the United Mine Workers, welcomed assembly line laborers, who often came from religious and ethnic minorities; in contrast, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was interested primarily in craft workers, such as carpenters with northern European backgrounds. When in 1937, the auto workers launched sit-down strikes, Roosevelt refused to sanction the use of force to dislodge them. As a result, General motors and other firms were compelled to recognize these new unions. Not until World War II, though, did Henry Ford and other recalcitrant employers yield.

African American workers increasingly joined unions to protect their employment rights as well. One of the most powerful of such organizations was the Sleeping Car Porters' Union, a group of railroad-passenger attendants that was almost completely composed of African Americans. Led by the tireless, charismatic A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), the union languished for years until Roosevelt's legislation made it legally viable. It was the first African American union to be allowed into the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1935, the Porters' Union forced a virulently anti-union company, the makers and operators of Pullman passenger cars, to sit at the bargaining table with the union's members. After two long years of struggle, Pullman agreed to terms, a milestone event in American civil rights history.

During World War II, the effort to make the United States the "arsenal of democracy" aided American workers by making jobs plentiful and raising wages. Most unions agreed to a no-strike pledge at the beginning of the war. Nonetheless, conflict between labor and management still arose, largely over who controlled the shop floor, and who set work rates and salaries. In 1943, half a million coal miners went on strike four separate times to protest low pay. African American workers, likewise, still confronted discrimination on the job. When A. Philip Randolph in 1941 threatened a "March on Washington" to protest discrimination in military industries and the services, FDR issued an Executive Order directing government agencies and contractors to hire without regard to race or religion. The Executive Order also created a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to monitor its implementation, although the commission had no enforcement powers.

Without a doubt, American workers improved their lot during the Roosevelt years. They, and the unions they joined, achieved a new legitimacy in the American political and economic arena and received hard-won wage increases, although those wages did not rise as much as workers wanted. Conservatives in Congress and many business leaders, moreover, still considered unions illegitimate. The challenges for African American workers were even greater. Nonetheless, American workers and the unions that represented them believed that in Franklin D. Roosevelt, they had an ally in the White House. They would reward him—and his Democratic successors—with their votes and support for years to come.

Recent Immigrants

Although Congress passed a series of immigration laws in the 1920s which essentially halted the great migration of European immigrants since the last decades of the nineteenth century, recent immigrants continued to play an important role in American political, economic, and social life. The Great Depression hit recent immigrants very hard. They often worked in the low-paying industrial jobs that disappeared during the economic crisis. The ethnic communities that sustained immigrants as they adapted to life in the United States suffered too, as local businesses—from banks to tailors to groceries—failed.

Starting with the 1928 election, the Democratic Party began to win the votes of recent immigrants, in large part because candidate Al Smith rejected prohibition and displayed a sensitivity to life in urban American, where immigrants most often lived. FDR built upon Smith's gains in the 1932 general election. The New Deal especially energized recent immigrants and brought them into the Democratic Party. Roosevelt appointed Jews and Catholics to important positions in his administration, heartening immigrant newcomers who reveled in the appointment of their co-religionists. So great a departure was Roosevelt's attitude from that of previous Presidents, whose appointments were largely restricted to white, northern European, Protestant men, that Time magazine featured on the cover of one of its issues in 1935 two of his advisers, Thomas Corcoran (an Irish Catholic) and Benjamin Cohen (a Jew).

Most important to the party's success, however, was the emotional attachment recent immigrants felt toward FDR. They believed that he was their President and saw him a father-figure who watched after their interests. It was not unusual in the 1930s for FDR's picture to hang in a prominent place in a recent immigrant's home or business. These new Americans joined the Democratic party, and they and their children would vote Democratic for the next generation.