The great depression created an earthquake in American politics second only to that brought by the civil war. It led to sweeping changes in political and economic institutions and in class relations. Looking back on it from the perspective of 80 years progressives are inclined to romanticize it and conservatives to vilify it. However the political maneuverings involved in passing legislation were complex and messy. The Roosevelt administration could not pass legislation without the votes of the southern delegations. In the tradition of the Solid South they acted as a unified bloc. As a price for their votes they demanded and got modifications to social and economic programs that cut racial minorities out of the picture.
In 1877 in order to get the necessary votes to end the Hays-Tilden presidential standoff, the party of Lincoln, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of the brief efforts at reconstruction in the south. The white oligarchs and former slave owners regained political control and for the next century they were utterly dedicated to maintaining the tightest possible authoritarian control. They established a system of racial control that became known as Jim Crow. Like most authoritarian states it became a one party political structure. Republicans virtually did not exist. Thus, the congressional delegations from southern states were exclusively Democratic and they stuck solidly together in defense of racial segregation. During the long period of Republican domination of national politics, southerners composed a majority of Democrats in congress. With the great landslide of 1932 the Democrats took over control of congress. The southern bloc was now a minority within that party, but they were still a large minority. They had enough votes to make or break the passage of any legislation. Their one party system at home meant that southern congressmen and senators were likely to be reelected, gaining seniority and the control of important committees.
Jim Crow restrictions applied to African Americans in all of the southern states. At that point about 75% of them still lived in the south. They also applied to Mexican Americans in Texas. Laws were devised to effectively deny them the right to vote. The electorate was almost all white. The southern economy had been essentially disconnected from the industrial revolution taking place in the northeastern quadrant of the country. It remained an overwhelmingly agrarian society. With very few exceptions racial minorities were employed in agricultural labor or domestic service. They typically received wages significantly below those of white workers. Preserving this cheap labor was a major agenda of the southern establishment. The south was the poorest region of the country.
There were a number of major pieces of new deal legislation that were substantially modified to conform to the demands of southern racists. These included:
The Agricultural Adjustment Act
The Social Security Act
The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act)
The Federal Housing Act
The Agricultural Adjustment Act established the system of agricultural subsidies and price supports that is still with us today. One of the major economic problems of the depression was serious deflation. This had caused the prices of goods to fall below the cost of production. The approach taken by the AAA was to provide incentive payments to farmers to take land out of production. Reducing the supply of agricultural products would raise prices. Taking large amounts of land out of production meant that agricultural labor would be out of work. This had a devastating impact on wage workers and share croppers. The southern congressional bloc supported the idea of payments to land owners. However, they opposed the efforts of liberals in the administration to see to it that a portion of the payments would go directly to the displaced workers and share croppers. Jim Crow won the fight and the displaced workers helped to fuel the great migration depicted in The Grapes Of Wrath.
The Social Security Act created the Social Security program and public assistance programs that became generally known as welfare. Social Security is still with us today but regularly under attack. The general plan was to create a dedicated tax that would fund pension benefits for all workers. However, the southern oligarchs saw this as a threat to their supply of cheap colored labor. They demanded that agricultural and domestic workers be excluded from the program. At the time that impacted a large majority of black workers in the south.
The National Labor Relations Act gave labor unions significant new rights to organize American workers for collective bargaining. It resulted in a major expansion of union membership in the industrialized sections of the country. Again the southern congressional delegations held the bill ransom until agricultural workers were excluded from its provisions. They were willing to vote for unions in northern factories as long as southern blacks were cut out of the arrangement. As the south became more industrialized during WW II they suddenly found themselves with industries that were covered under the Wagner Act. In 1947 the southern congressional bloc switched sides and voted with the Republicans to pass the Taft Hartley Act limiting the rights of organized labor.
The Federal Housing Act created a role for the federal government in subsidizing and regulating real estate finance. During the 1920s under the patronage of Hubert Hoover, first as Sec, of Commerce and then as president, a public private partnership had emerged that supported the use of zoning regulations and restrictive covenants to promote racially segregated housing development. The housing finance agencies established under the new deal turned to many of the people who had been active in this movement. They adopted regulations that established the practice of redlining. People of color were effectively excluded from government subsidized mortgages.
These are examples of some of the major pieces of new deal legislation that were deliberately structured in ways to make them racially exclusionary in practice. The south as a whole was the region that received the greatest economic benefit from the new deal. It provided a transfer of wealth from the northern industrial states to the south. However, it was overwhelmingly white southerners who benefited from the operation. The force of Jim Crow was able to exert control and influence all along the way. The results of those efforts still have impact on the lives and wealth of African Americans today.