“BIG NEGRO VOTE BACKS F. D. R. AS NEW DEAL SWEEPS NATION” proclaimed the massive headline across the front page of The New York Amsterdam News* – one of the nation’s premier Black newspapers – announcing results of the 1936 presidential election.
From the time of Lincoln, African Americans who had the right to vote generally voted Republican. However, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 71% of Black voters – including hundreds of thousands who had never previously voted – supported FDR in 1936. Several factors contributed to this turnaround in voting patterns.
While Roosevelt fell short of aggressively promoting civil rights or an anti-lynching law, his New Deal economic programs, intended to offer relief to the unemployed and aid in recovery of the national economy, benefitted many African Americans who were disproportionately affected by unemployment in the Great Depression.
In addition, the voters were likely influenced by Roosevelt’s efforts to be more attentive to the needs African Americans through efforts such as the formation of the “Black Cabinet.” The Roosevelt administration sought out African American activists and leaders to serve in this newly formed group of public policy advisors to the President. Members of the Black Cabinet, formally known as the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, worked in official and unofficial capacities throughout federal executive departments and New Deal agencies. The organization included 45 African American members by mid-1935.
The only woman of the group – and one of the most well-known appointees – was Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was a close personal friend of FDR and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (a more staunch and outspoken advocate of civil rights than her husband) and was known as “The First Lady of the Struggle” because of her accomplishments as a civil rights activist and educator.
It’s also of note that in 1936, 25 African Americans were elected to office, according to a sidebar story in the same issue of The New York Amsterdam News. This number included Arthur W. Mitchell of Illinois, a former Republican, who became the first African American elected to Congress as a Democrat. Mitchell, a loyal supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal, would serve four terms in the House of Representatives.
For more information and insight into the growing influence of Black voters, politicians and activists during this era, ProQuest’s History Vault contains a wealth of relevant official documents, correspondence and other materials in the following collections:
- New Deal Agencies and Black America documents the work of members of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Ambrose Caliver, Eugene Kinckle Jones, Robert C. Weaver, Lawrence A. Oxley, and Joseph H. B. Evans. The collection includes correspondence between these Black Cabinet members and prominent New Dealers like Frances Perkins and Harold L. Ickes as well as many other important New Deal departments and agencies such a the Works Progress Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and National Recovery Administration.
- Mary McLeod Bethune Papers document the life and work of Mary McLeod Bethune, focusing on her role as an educator and civil rights leader, including her work in the Black Cabinet.
- Arthur W. Mitchell Papers chronicle Mitchell’s work on anti-lynching legislation, abolition of Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation, and increasing employment opportunities for Black Americans during the New Deal and World War II.
- NAACP Papers contain substantial documentation on NAACP campaigns during the New Deal, including their interaction with the Roosevelt Administration.
Also check out ProQuest Historical Newspapers – Black Historical Newspapers for primary source materials essential to the study of American history and African American culture, history, politics, and the arts.
*Brown, Earl. The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938) [New York, N.Y] 07 Nov 1936: 1
Image: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1867). "The First Vote." Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-3fb1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99