The Roosevelt Years
THE GREAT DEPRESSION and World War II transformed American politics as voters migrated en masse from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Franklin Roosevelt wielded great presidential power over a span of twelve years. Historians differ in their assessment of Roosevelt’s civil rights record. Sympathetic interpreters emphasize the role of Eleanor Roosevelt, northern Democrats, and labor unions in promoting a civil rights agenda. They also note how FDR’s judicial appointments and Department of Justice briefs paved the way for the court victories of the 1940s and 1950s.1 Middle-of-the-road interpreters note the diverse responses of African Americans: younger, northern blacks migrated to the Democratic Party, while older, southern blacks would not vote for the “party of the Klan.”2
With southern Democrats critical to his New Deal agenda of enlarging state power, Roosevelt remained silent on race and refused to back antilynching bills or other nondiscrimination measures. Despite FDR’s silence on race, African Americans voted for the Democratic Party because the New Deal offered jobs to desperate people. However, those passionate about civil rights were far more critical of Roosevelt’s record. The entries that follow highlight the continuing classical liberal critique of state-sponsored discrimination and inequality. The advent of war brought an additional critique of Japanese internment.