Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

By Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Four years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remembered her frustrations when racial issues, such as the antilynching bill and the abolition of the poll tax, reached her husband’s desk. “Although Franklin was in favor of both measures, they never became ‘must’ legislation. When I would protest, he would simply say: ‘First things come first, and I can’t alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more important at the moment by pushing any measure that would entail a fight.’”1 A powerful southern congressional bloc influenced the executive treatment of race relations during the Depression and World War II. To the chagrin of many civil rights leaders, the support of this southern contingency always outweighed the administration’s commitment to endorsing measures that would explicitly improve political, economic, and social conditions for black Americans.2

Still, the federal government did not completely ignore civil rights in this politically explosive atmosphere. One important method that the Roosevelt administration employed to acknowledge African Americans and to involve them in the president’s “New Deal” was through federally sponsored cultural programs. Initially conceived under the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Project (FAP) and then continued under wartime agencies such as the Office of War Information (OWI) and the War Department, fine art and media-based programs represented an important strand of civil rights policy during the Roosevelt era. Through the publications of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the plays of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the endorsement of black celebrities such as Joe Louis, and the production of wartime films and radio shows, liberal administrators demonstrated a sustained commitment to addressing the

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