A magnificently researched, dramatically told work of narrative nonfiction about the history, evolution, impact, and ultimate demise of what was known in the 1930s and 1940s as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Black Cabinet.
In 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency with the help of key African American defectors from the Republican Party. At the time, most African Americans lived in poverty, denied citizenship rights and terrorized by white violence. As the New Deal began, a "black Brain Trust" joined the administration and began documenting and addressing the economic hardship and systemic inequalities African Americans faced. They became known as the Black Cabinet, but the environment they faced was reluctant, often hostile, to change.
"Will the New Deal be a square deal for the Negro?" The black press wondered. The Black Cabinet set out to devise solutions to the widespread exclusion of black people from its programs, whether by inventing tools to measure discrimination or by calling attention to the administration's failures. Led by Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, they were instrumental to Roosevelt's continued success with black voters. Operating mostly behind the scenes, they helped push Roosevelt to sign an executive order that outlawed discrimination in the defense industry. They saw victories--jobs and collective agriculture programs that lifted many from poverty--and defeats--the bulldozing of black neighborhoods to build public housing reserved only for whites; Roosevelt's refusal to get behind federal anti-lynching legislation. The Black Cabinet never won official recognition from the president, and with his death, it disappeared from view. But it had changed history. Eventually, one of its members would go on to be the first African American Cabinet secretary; another, the first African American federal judge and mentor to Thurgood Marshall.
Masterfully researched and dramatically told, The Black Cabinet brings to life a forgotten generation of leaders who fought post-Reconstruction racial apartheid and whose work served as a bridge that Civil Rights activists traveled to achieve the victories of the 1950s and '60s.
- ISBN-13: 9780802129109
- ISBN-10: 0802129102
- Publisher: Grove Press
- Publish Date: May 2020
- Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Page Count: 560
The Black Cabinet
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, he was praised for the significant advances African Americans made during his administration. One editorial said black Americans had “lost the best friend they ever had in the White House.” The New Deal did provide African Americans with substantial assistance and more reason to hope, but FDR needed the support of Southern Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda, and he was reluctant to take actions on race that would upset them. What he was able to achieve came largely thanks to the efforts of an informal group of black activists, intellectuals and scholars working within the government. As historian Jill Watts shows in her meticulously researched and beautifully written The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, these “black cabinet” members succeeded in stopping or modifying many policies that would have made institutionalized racism even worse than it was.
At the center of this effort was Mary McLeod Bethune. A passionate advocate for civil rights and the first African American woman to head a federal division, Bethune was an educator, the founder of a college and a magnetic and strong-willed personality with a talent for organizational politics. Watts includes portraits of many other figures, as well, including Robert Weaver, who, in the 1960s, became the first African American to serve in a White House cabinet position.
Two other African American women, though not part of the black cabinet, also played crucial roles. Eva DeBoe Jones, a Pittsburgh manicurist, was able to organize a meeting that led to many black voters deserting the Republican Party. College graduate Elizabeth McDuffie was a maid at the White House who was close to the Roosevelts and helped manage their relationship with the black community.
This absorbing look at a pivotal point in civil rights activity before the 1950s and ’60s is well done and should be of interest to us all.