Although academics routinely credit President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with ending the Great Depression, winning World War II and saving western civilization, the actual historical record does not augur in favor of any of these assertions. Author and scholar Amity Shlaes demolishes the first of these tenets in her seminal book.
Although he saw and addressed the evil that Hitler presented, Roosevelt’s failure to comprehend the evils of communism laid the groundwork for the Cold War and the millions of victims of communist dictators must also be reckoned with as part of his legacy. Additionally, he was a bigot who made Archie Bunker look refined.
For one thing, Archie never used the N-word that Mr. Fireside Chat was all too comfortable with. Bruce Bartlett shows this side of the four-term president in his book Wrong On Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past.
To be fair, unlike his mentor Woodrow Wilson, FDR did not act on these inclinations, although the man with the cigarette holder may have done more harm by accident than the author of the 14 points did by design. Nevertheless, if the blacks who wept as his funeral train passed know how much they were set back by his policies, they might have cried for another reason.
“To the extent that black workers were able to get public works jobs at all, they were mostly in lower level job categories than they had previously held before the New Deal,” Bartlett, an economist, writes.
Nor did they fare much better in the economy as a whole. “In April 1930, the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent for black males and 6.9 percent for white males,” Bartlett shows. “Seven years later, in 1937, after implementation of most New Deal programs, the unemployment rate for black males was well above that for white males: 19.1 percent for the former versus 13.9 percent for the latter.”
“Negroes have lost jobs as a result of the NRA,” Dr. Robert C. Weaver, the Roosevelt Administration’s senior black economist said of the New Deal’s National Recovery Act. Some wags said that NRA stood for “Negroes Ruined Again.”
“The minimum wage policy, he [Weaver] said, ‘resulted in wholesale discharges in certain areas,’” Bartlett relates. “A 1937 study by the NRA itself concluded that the minimum wage provisions of the NIRA [National Industrial Recovery Act] put 50,000 blacks out of work in 1934 alone.”
To top it all off, Roosevelt was the first president to put a Klansman on the U. S. Supreme Court—a move that Woodrow Wilson is never known to have contemplated. Although FDR proclaimed ignorance of this colorful aspect of Hugo Black’s past when asked about it in the 1930s, the justice himself offered a far different recollection in a 1968 memo.
“President Roosevelt, when I went up to lunch with him, told me there was not reason for my worrying about my having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” Justice Black remembered. “He said that some of his best friends and supporters he had in the state of Georgia were strong members of that organization.”
“He never, in any way, by word or attitude, indicated any doubt about my having been in the Klan, nor did he indicate any criticism of me for having been a member of that organization,” Black wrote. “The rumors and statements to the contrary are wrong.”
Now there’s a twist on the old “some of my best friends are…” dodge of charges of racial prejudice. Don’t expect this chapter in Black History to be taught in many classrooms or lecture halls anytime soon, in February or any other month.