A Decade of Depression, or of Hope?
A Review of Harvard Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks
Harvard Sitkoff teaches history at the University of New Hampshire. Some of the published credits of Harvard Sitkoff include The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Postwar America: A Student Companion (Student Companions to American History. Sitkoff study is sweeping in its scope in regard to the African-American history.
BY JESSICA SIAK
A decade of depression. A decade of change. A decade of hope. Although the Great Depression brought an overall feeling of hopelessness to United States, it brought some hope to the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement originated in the 1930s. Because of the New Deal, labor unions, communism, and the rise in political power of the blacks, the civil rights movement was born. Before this decade, blacks were powerless and dispirited, but in the 1930s, “it was an era of rising black expectations and decreasing Negro powerlessness, an age of diminishing white indifference to the plight of Afro-Americans.”1 And thus, the roots of the civil rights movement took place.
In the first chapter of his book, “The Dusk of Dawn,” Sitkoff briefly summarizes the situation of the Negros in America at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. After 1876, civil rights lost momentum in American thought; African-Americans were given the right to vote, and then found those rights limited by Southern whites. Many laws were passed to limit and segregate blacks, and no effort was made to intervene. Racism was prevalent throughout the country, especially in the early 1900s. Blacks were virtually helpless against the racial order as well as the petty brutality that was commonplace. Without political power for protection, the blacks lost hope for equal rights, and could only make feeble attempts at advocating accommodation. “In the twenties…it was not a time of concern, of caring about the downtrodden. Few looked to the government to protect the rights of the forgotten. A mood of complacency, of callousness, of suspicion of reform, still hovered…”2 When the Great Depression hit, FDR represented hope to many white Americans as he passed the New Deal to help save the American public from destitution. However, the New Deal did not extend the same help to the blacks, and African-Americans felt yet again betrayed by their government.
As the Great Depression dragged on, Communist affiliated organizations, labor unions, and new ideas about racism changed the American public; these organizations and ideas sought the support of Negros. Communist affiliated organizations hoped to gain the support from the blacks, with the slogan of “equal rights.” At first, the ambiguity of the Commitern policies seemed to downplay separatism as an issue; they began to fully support blacks later on in the 1930s. “The Communist party sponsored demonstrations… during the summer of 1931… The party was beginning to prove its mettle to blacks.”3 For the first time, blacks had the support of a political party that held some influence. The blacks not only got support from Communism, but also from organized labor. Although during the early 1930s, organized labor was segregated and often excluded blacks; however, toward the middle and end of the decade, organized labor began to look toward blacks for support as well. “It was also due to the conflict between craft and industrial unions and the novelty of labor leaders having to vie for black support.”4 The CIO relied on the Negro’s support for success. Consequently, numerous CIO and some AF of L unions joined together in battling Jim Crow laws. By advocating legislative reform and financial support of black protest groups, the labor unions’ quest for racial equality attained new vigor.
Finally, the general perception of race greatly changed throughout the 1930s. A scientific attack on racism declared the uniqueness of races, and that racism was associated with Hitlerites and Fascists. “It rejected the notion of innate black inferiority; it emphasized the damage done by racism; and it depicted prejudice as a sickness, afflicting both individuals and the very well-being of the nation.”5 The IQ test developed by Klineberg, a social psychologist, who overturned many of the academic community’s attitudes toward innate intelligence, and thus there was great movement away from biological explanation of intelligence. Reflected in the altered temper of times, writings about black poverty, discrimination of New Deal programs, labor movement, and liberal coalition was prevalent; thus, the cultural changes stimulated government officials to champion new intellectual consensus on race. Blacks became more visible in the musical and artistic worlds, as American theater spotlighted the oppression of blacks. In the final chapters of the book, Sitkoff explains the ways that blacks began to fight for their rights as the 1930s came to a close. “Forsaking accommodation, more blacks than ever before marched, struck, boycotted, lobbied, and rallied against racial discrimination.”6 Although the depression casted a gloom that made struggle for survival dwarf all other concerns, the blacks persisted in their quest for their rights. The National Urban League, a 1930s civil rights organization, the NAACP, and other interracial groups increased their cooperation in joint ventures. They became proponents of interracial unionism and heralded their support for civil rights and New Deal liberalism. Although there was strife within the unions, in the end, the NNC and NAACP shared the commitment to most issues, and attacked lynching and the poll tax, forming a visible coalition. “The many changes in the status of civil rights produced during the New Deal era became most noticeable in 1940 and 1941.”7 Combined with the evidence of black militancy and black support, the Negro rhetoric and actions made civil rights a major issue in American life and stimulated hope among the Negros. The discrimination and segregation of the armed forces deeply embittered many blacks, and NAACP amended the program to end discrimination within the armed forces. The FEPC intensified belligerence of the black community, while the Executive Order 8802 unleashed greater militancy. Although little changed in the concrete aspects of life for most blacks, Negro expectations rose, powerlessness decreased, white hostility diminished, and a new hope was established.
In the final chapters of the book, Sitkoff explains the ways that blacks began to fight for their rights as the 1930s came to a close. “Forsaking accommodation, more blacks than ever before marched, struck, boycotted, lobbied, and rallied against racial discrimination.”6 Although the depression casted a gloom that made struggle for survival dwarf all other concerns, the blacks persisted in their quest for their rights. The National Urban League, a 1930s civil rights organization, the NAACP, and other interracial groups increased their cooperation in joint ventures. They became proponents of interracial unionism and heralded their support for civil rights and New Deal liberalism. Although there was strife within the unions, in the end, the NNC and NAACP shared the commitment to most issues, and attacked lynching and the poll tax, forming a visible coalition. “The many changes in the status of civil rights produced during the New Deal era became most noticeable in 1940 and 1941.”7 Combined with the evidence of black militancy and black support, the Negro rhetoric and actions made civil rights a major issue in American life and stimulated hope among the Negros. The discrimination and segregation of the armed forces deeply embittered many blacks, and NAACP amended the program to end discrimination within the armed forces. The FEPC intensified belligerence of the black community, while the Executive Order 8802 unleashed greater militancy. Although little changed in the concrete aspects of life for most blacks, Negro expectations rose, powerlessness decreased, white hostility diminished, and a new hope was established.
Although the civil rights movement is more commonly known to have been started in the 1940s and accelerating all the way to the sixties, Harvard Sitkoff expresses in his A New Deal for Blacks that the true seeds of the civil rights movement were planted in the 1930s, during the depression decade. Revolutions and great movements begin with human attitude. As Sitkoff describes, the attitude of the blacks before the 1930s was complete hopelessness, for they had no political power, and lynchings were so commonplace that much of it was not reported. The attitude of the blacks, despite the urgings of prominent black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, was not a revolutionary one. However, when the Great Depression struck in the 1930s, throwing the Negros into destitution without offering the lifeline that the government’s New Deal was offering to the whites, things began to change. With some support from communist and labor unions, as well as general feelings of belligerence, the blacks began to argue more for their rights. Successes in advocating their rights gave them hope, compelling them to continue weakening discrimination, thus planting the attitude and seeds of the civil rights movement.
When Harvard Sitkoff began his investigation and writing of A New Deal for Blacks, he was participating in the 1960s civil rights demonstrations. He felt the same hopelessness that the blacks felt before the 1930s, when the cold, hard reality caused the optimism to dim. “Too many examples of the brutish depth of white racism, the selfishness of most Americans, and the insensitivity of their leaders took their toll.”8 His experiences clearly channeled his assumptions into why 1930s was a decade of the start of hope for African-Americans. The depression threw the American public to a point where struggling for rights became a struggle for survival; the Negros similarly struggled for survival by fighting for their rights. Sitkoff’s views are also influenced by his school of historiography: New Left. New Left historians demand the inclusion of those features of our history that explain how we came to be a violent, racist, repressive society. The renewed emphasis on conflict and polarization was fed by the civil rights struggle. Sitkoff confesses in the preface of the book that he considered himself part of the group of historians determined to expose the vicious continuity of racism in American life and thought. “As I delved into the history of the 1930s and 1940s, I encountered, over and over, examples of a faith, a conviction, that would move numberless persons, both white and black, to seek to erase the blight of racism… I found evidence of the hopefulness that so awed me when I went South in the 1960s.”9 His writing of A New Deal for Blacks began with an investigation driven by the desire to expose racism in America.
Charles H. Martin of University of Texas calls Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks a “well written and valuable survey of the emerging forces that elevated the status of civil rights during the 1930s.” 10 In his review, Martin explains that Sitkoff examines the long-term developments that began during the crucial years of the 1930s which represented a turning point in race relations trends. He also emphasizes that FDR’s New Deal program was not the only influence behind this transformation, for the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt and the massive 1936 congressional majorities reduced the importance of conservative southern Democrats. The resulting change in racial attitudes of the American intelligentsia improved the black social status. Martin also criticizes the book, for he says that Sitkoff is “curiously selective in its use of relevant secondary works… and ultimately disappointing in that [he] produces no major reinterpretations or revelations.”11
Dan T. Carter on the other hand, suggests that while Harvard Sitkoff’s book is the broadest account yet written about black history during the 1930s. Its focus on changes in government, constitutional law, institution, and the concept of race itself allows concentration of developments that “ultimately led to significant radical reforms.”12 Carter points out two implicit themes in Sitkoff’s study: the continuous bickering among civil rights organizations and the reluctance of most national political leaders to take a firm stand on any radical issue. Civil rights leaders were unable to agree upon common tactics, which reflected disparate social outlooks and ideologies, but at the same time reflected a product of debates over strategy. This theme is shown in Sitkoff’s book by the Communist party’s spurning of compromise and insistence on revolutionary action, as well as NAACP’s agitation and political pressure (although behind the scenes, it emphasized conciliation). The accomplishments of both were mixed. This theme is related to the second one: the weak stance that politicians took in regard to the civil rights issue. President FDR’s commitment to equal rights was very timid, as shown in the Executive Order 8802. With these issues, readers have a clearer picture of how much more difficult circumstances during the 1930s were for the black generation, in addition to the Great Depression.
Unlike most nonfiction historical books, A New Deal for Blacks is easily understandable for students not familiar with the specific topic, and requires little background information prior to reading the book. Sitkoff provides evidence in the form of story line, and the statistics are evidence to prove a generalization rather than a whole mass of paragraph. His thesis is extremely insightful, offering a different perspective to an issue often read by many students. The book divides its support for the thesis in a clear and organized way to improve reader understanding of the author’s thoughts, and provides much evidence in the form of a story. This makes his book much more interesting than the average history book. Though Charles H. Martin states that the book is disappointing because it produces no major reinterpretations or revelations, and that specialists may not be fully satisfied with the study, A New Deal for Blacks makes a very useful survey for general and advanced courses in United States and African-American history. A weakness of the book lies within the chapters—many of the chapters include events, but told in such a way that the events do not connect until the very end, when Sitkoff simply makes a statement to tie it together. However, in rereading the book, his thesis and themes are more prominent, and the two themes that Dan T. Carter mentioned can be clearly seen throughout his entire book. Although A New Deal for Blacks may not be a fun, recreational book to read, it offers an insightful, comprehensive angle on the beginnings of the civil rights movement.
According to the author, the depression decade proved to be a time of planting and not harvesting, in terms of civil rights. The era was marked by rising black expectations and hope, as well as a diminishing white indifference to the plight of African-Americans. The New Deal years are a turning point in race relations trends. In fact, “they constitute a watershed of developments whose outgrowth was a broad-based social movement aimed at bringing about a fuller participation of blacks in American society.”12 Although racial equality did not achieve fulfillment in the 1930s, a variety of fundamental changes in the status of race relations occurred in the 1930s, setting it apart from the preceding decades.
From a holistic view, America in the 1930s was not a time of civil rights movements. Often times, the movements are about timing. The Depression decade proved to be the right time for the seeds of civil rights movement to be planted, with Communist parties, labor unions, and black organizations all vying for black support. In combination with the changes in racist views, Sitkoff’s thesis about the beginnings of Negro civil rights movement is thus very believable.
Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks offers much insight to the situation in the 1930s. Although the 1930s is most often known as the Depression decade, it was also a decade of the beginning of hope for the African-Americans. The attitude of Negros changed from hopelessness to slight optimism, as people and organizations began to intervene on their behalf. From the communist party’s insistence to spurn compromise and lay groundwork for revolutionary action to Eleanor Roosevelt’s persuasion, the slight improvements in African-American rights sparked optimism in their attitudes, therefore sowing the seeds of the civil rights movement that would flower in the 1960s.
1: Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1978.
Jessica Siak is a junior at Irvine High. She is very interested in history, and thus enrolled in AP U.S. History, a rigorous course that explores the fundamentals of U.S. History. When she is not busy with completing inhuman amounts of homework, she enjoys playing piano, tennis, and reading.
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