Part 15: The Depression to World War II

Part Fifteen: The Depression to World War II

"As a result of the war, the American nation had enormously expanded its industrial plant; it had discovered unsuspected possibilities by way of agricultural production; it had accumulated out of its profits huge sums for new investment." The results of this figured into the rise and evolution of the automobile, airplane, motion picture, radio, and other industries. "The prosperity of the twenties, was to a remarkable extent, corporation prosperity. … The fact that American business was actually owned by millions of investors was regarded with satisfaction by President Hoover and others as proof of its democracy, but any careful examination of corporation statistics was apt to prove that a comparatively small number of investors owned the greater part of the stock. Moreover, the direction of a given industry lay inevitably with the few insiders represented on the board of directors. In a sense, the control of business was less democratic than ever before."

Hence, the prosperity of the corporations encouraged speculative demands for stock, which in effect caused the price of stock to rise higher than its actual worth. "Even the Federal Reserve Board, at least indirectly, supported speculation, for it allowed loans to corporations ostensibly interested in programs of expansion, only to see the funds so obtained quickly passed along to speculators. … Too much of the country's credit was being diverted into stock-exchange loans, and industry as a result of the easy money was being tempted to over expand. Who was to buy all the goods that producers could make and sell? Already the building boom that characterized the earlier twenties was on the decline, automobile sales were off, and oil production far exceeded the demand."

"The stock-market collapse came in October 1929, when English interest rates were raised to six and one half percent in order to bring home needed capital that had been attracted to the United States by the high speculative profits. As a result many European holdings were thrown on the market, and prices began to sag. Frightened at the prospect, and no longer able to borrow at will, American speculators also began to unload." Frantic selling ensued, "prices dropped sharply; foreign trade fell off; factories curtailed production…; real estate values (but not mortgages) declined; new construction, except on governmental works, practically ceased; bands went under; worst of all, wages were cut drastically and unemployment figures began to mount. … No longer able to secure American loans, foreign nations fell likewise into the abyss of depression. … Once again…the United States was to learn by experience that whatever seriously affected one great nation was bound to affect all."

The repercussions of the 1929 financial disaster were to be felt first by the Black banks. On July 31, 1930, state auditors put a seal on Jesse Binga's big bank in Chicago's South Side Black ghetto. The word spread fast. "On the street a large crowd shouted in panic for its life savings now vanished. The same scene was quickly repeated in the Black sections of cities throughout the country; it would become commonplace in white communities eighteen months later. Thus, while the entire nation plunged into the Great Depression, Blacks as a group were affected earlier and more harshly. The chronic underemployment of Blacks was rapidly transformed into mass unemployment on a far higher percentage scale than among whites." Many Blacks found themselves plagued with misery, homelessness and starvation. Uneasy and restless mobs appeared in the northern cities. Blacks organized boycotts against local merchants. "While millions of Negroes were unemployed, white-owned stores in Negro ghettos continued to refuse to hire them. Committees were formed in various cities, especially Chicago and New York (where the fight was led by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) under the slogan 'Spend you money where you work!' The campaign was effective…" as stores began to hire Black help.

During the twenties and the beginning of the thirties the Communist Party tried to make inroads into the poorer classes, especially the Blacks by capitalizing on the despair and discontentment among the poor. They had difficulty gaining Black converts as "most rank-and-file Negroes followed the advice of their clergy or middle-class Negro leaders, the majority of whom had conscious reasons for opposing Communism."

"The high-water mark of Communist influence among Negroes was reached when the party organized the defense in the Scottsboro Case. On March 25, 1931, nine Negro adolescents were accused of raping two white women (of uncertain reputation) on a freight train in Alabama. Tried in the little town of Scottsboro, Alabama, within two weeks eight of the boys were condemned to the electric chair. While such organizations as the N.A.A.C.P. volunteered help and legal counsel, the parents of the boys preferred to let the Communist International Labor Defense handle the case. … But while Negroes were genuinely grateful to the Communists for such efforts, and genuinely admired their determined struggle for Negro rights, they did not flock to join the party."

The Great Migration of Blacks to the North created a new set of political relationships. One manifestation of this occurred when President Hoover nominated Judge John H. Parker to the Supreme Court. When the NAACP investigation indicated that he had since opposed Black suffrage, they amassed a letter-writing campaign to Washington when Hoover refused their request to withdraw Parker's name from nomination. The Senate's refusal, in 1930, to confirm the nomination attests to the success of the NAACP's efforts.

Another display of the changing political relationships came with the unprecedented show of unity of the NAACP, the Urban League, the Black churches, sororities and newspapers behind the demand for fair play in defense industries, armed forces and governmental apprenticeship programs.

"Asa Phillip Randolph fused the demands in a mammoth March on Washington organization." (Along with Randolph were Walter White, then executive secretary of NAACP and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) With the apparent inevitable American involvement in the war already raging in Europe, "the idea of a Black revolt in a time of crisis threw Washington into a panic. President Roosevelt called the March leaders to Washington and tried to persuade them to call it off. They refused. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt capitulated and signed the famous Executive Order No. 8802—The Fair Employment Practices Act—banning discrimination in defense plants and government offices and services 'because of race, creed, color, or national origin'." The objective of the expected 100,000 marchers was achieved. Hence, the march was called off.

Perhaps the most politically significant result of the Great Migration was the number of Black voters it produced. For in the South Black suffrage was stifled by KKK type activities, but in the North the Blacks right to vote was unhampered. "Negroes disappointed and embittered by Wilson's lack of interest in their problems, had largely returned to the Republican Party during…the twenties. But big city Democratic Party bosses had taken careful note of the enlargement of the Negro vote…" and began to appoint Blacks to small political jobs.

In 1932 the poor and working classes, especially Blacks, thought they detected a note of promise in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words and voted overwhelmingly for his presidency. After the election Roosevelt embarked upon the task of leading the nation out of the depression. Although Hoover realized the necessity for governmental intervention to prevent the total collapse of the nation's economy, and that the needs of the unemployed outran the resources of state and local authorities, Roosevelt went much further than Hoover had contemplated.

The program that Roosevelt undertook was known as the "New Deal." "With the recovery of white America as its first priority, the New Deal was not overly concerned with the Negro. The National Recovery Administration provided for a minimum wage scale and the abolition of child labor under the age of eighteen, gut few Negroes were represented at the code hearings. In addition, government cost of living differentials discriminated against the unskilled groups in which most Blacks were to be found. The Agriculture Adjustment Administration paid out a great deal in subsidies, but little of it went into the Black tenant farmer's pocket. Similarly, many Negroes were not covered under the Social Security Act." (These are among the conditions that combined to give rise to the March alluded to earlier, led by A Phillip Randolph.)

"Despite these considerable commissions, Negroes made some gains under the New Deal. For the first time the federal government admitted qualified Negroes in larger numbers into various governmental departments," such as Robert C. Weaver, Robert L. Vann, editor of the influential "Pittsburgh Courier," and William H. Hastie, Dean of Howard University Law School. The Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (NYA) under the directorship of Mary McLeod Bethune (founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College), enrolled 64,000 young Blacks in a student work program. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which existed between 1932–1942, placed some 200,000 Black youths in segregated camps established by the agency.

"World War II eased the country out of the Depression but once again the Negro found his position a decidedly inferior one,"


Bennett, Lerone, Jr.— Before the Mayflower
Chambers, Bradford — Chronicles of Black Protest
Goldston, Robert — The Negro Revolution
Hicks, John D. — The American Nation
Resh, Richard — Black America
All quotations are from the above references.