Introduction

Just as was the case with organized labor, the relationship between the Roosevelt administration and African-Americans was complicated. Thousands of blacks benefited from New Deal programs, particularly public works projects, so that Roosevelt in 1936 would become the first presidential candidate of the Democratic Party to receive a majority of the black vote. Nevertheless, the president feared alienating southern whites, and therefore refused to challenge discrimination in federal relief programs, or to endorse legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime (thus taking lynching cases out of local courts, where perpetrators were likely to be acquitted). Moreover, the interests of African-Americans were frequently ignored in the crafting of New Deal legislation. For example, as this editorial in Opportunity – the magazine of the National Urban League – makes clear, the new codes mandated by the National Industrial Recovery Act often allowed blacks to be paid lower wages than whites. The National Urban League, founded in 1910, united organizations established earlier in the twentieth century to defend the economic interests of urban blacks.


Source: Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, 11:8 (August 1933), p. 231.


If there were those who supposed for a moment that the identity of interests of black and white labor would be recognized in the codes submitted by Industry in accordance with the provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act, by this time they must be aware, to say the least, that their hopes were ill founded. For in the Textile Code, the first code accepted by the government and apparently approved by organized labor, Negro unskilled labor, classified as cleaners, outside workers, etc., was ruthlessly excluded from the benefits of the minimum wage provision and that of the limitation of hours of work. So glaring was this ill-concealed discrimination on the basis of race that the President himself in his acceptance of the code demanded that on January first, these classes of labor admittedly composed for the most part of Negroes should be especially considered so as to be included in the general purposes of the Act.

It would seem that in the codes proposed thus far, those industries in which the bulk of the unskilled labor is black have made an adroit attempt to establish a differential wage based on race. In the proposed lumber and steel codes the wide disparity in the wages, especially of the unskilled in the North and in the South, which appears to be merely geographical, is in reality an effort to perpetuate the wage inequalities current in the South. Only where the threat of organized labor menaces the company union and the open shop has there been any effort to protect the interest of the black worker, and in the Steel Code this alone inspired a section against discrimination of Negro workers.

The manipulation of wage scales on the basis of race is fraught with danger to all workers. The consequences which will flow from reducing black workers to a wage which does not insure “decent living” must inevitably be felt by millions of unskilled whites, whose wage will tend to approach that of the despised blacks. A labor policy which condones such a practice or is without voice when it is perpetrated must be condemned as short sighted, stupid and woefully lacking in knowledge of the historic mission of the labor movement.

The blanket code recently promulgated by the President will be hailed by millions of black workers who will come under its provisions. But there is no reason to believe that the same tendencies which have appeared in the codeswill be absent in the operation of the code in the industries of the South. Only sincere, vigorous, unceasing vigilance on the part of the Department of Labor will be able to prevent such discrimination against Negro workers in the South as will practically nullify the intent and purpose of the National Industrial Recovery Act for the American Negro.

Study Questions

A. What do the editors of Opportunity find objectionable about the National Industrial Recovery Act? Why do they believe that white as well black workers should be concerned about the codes that have been approved thus far?

B. Taken together with the Black Cotton Farmers and the AAA, why might African-Americans have had reason to be disappointed with the New Deal thus far? Why do you think they supported Roosevelt regardless? How does this criticism of the NIRA compare with those put forward by Al Smith and Father Charles Coughlin)?