Making Sense of Election 2016

For the past week I have been trying to process what happened in last week’s presidential election. I apologize for the misleading title, but I haven’t been able to make sense of it. For those who study history, the past 9 days have seemed like we stepped into a time machine and traveled to the 1960s, and that’s on a good day.

I know people in their 90s who voted for Hillary Clinton, and people in their 30s who voted for Donald Trump. I also know people who didn’t vote at all. Now I’m not suggesting that everyone in their 90s supported Hillary, but of those who did, I think I understand why. They lived through the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, World War II, and plenty of other wars. Having lived through so much history, they don’t wish to relive it. As one senior citizen told me, the good old days sucked.

America currently offers more freedoms to more people than ever, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, or sexual preference. More than ever, people feel that these rights are threatened since the election.

I can only encourage people who support equal rights for all to put their money or their time into organizations that will protect these rights. There are more comprehensive lists of organizations that other writers and bloggers have put together, but I will mention a couple of examples. If you’re concerned about First Amendment rights, visit the ACLU website at https://www.aclu.org. To combat anti-Semitism, visit the Anti-Defamation League www.adl.org; for African American rights, visit the NAACP www.naacp.org. Call your representatives to support or oppose legislation. Online petitions are great, but old fashioned phone calls stand out.

For those of you who feel that America is in crisis, remember John F. Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters–one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Take the opportunity today to give someone who is hurting hope.

 

President Franklin Roosevelt and Few Civil Rights for African Americans

Despite the efforts of his wife Eleanor and African American leaders, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration made little progress on civil rights.

New Deal programs discriminated against blacks. For example, under the Works Progress Administration, blacks received less pay than whites for the same work. This was especially true in the South. The discrimination was somewhat eased by the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who personally viewed the struggles of blacks during visits to WPA projects. She wrote, “It is all wrong to discriminate between white and black men!”

FDR agreed to sign an executive order barring discrimination in the WPA. One million black families benefited from WPA wages. However, discrimination in other parts of the New Deal persisted. The Federal Housing Authority refused to help blacks trying to buy houses in white neighborhoods. The National Recovery Administration persisted in paying black workers less than whites. Even the Social Security Act excluded the menial jobs that most blacks held.

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office, 1935

For black leaders, however, the most frustrating issue was FDR’s stance on the anti-lynching bill introduced in Congress in early 1934. Although twenty-six African Americans were killed by mobs the year before, FDR took no stance whatsoever on the bill. The Amsterdam News commented on FDR’s lack of support for the bill using the headline “Here’s Mr. Roosevelt’s Message on Lynching.” The article contained one sentence, “In his annual message to Congress last Friday President Roosevelt had the following to say about lynching:” That sentence was followed by a large blank space.

FDR tried to explain to African American leaders why he could not back the bill. He told NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, “I did not choose the tools with which I must work.” In order get votes for New Deal programs, FDR felt he couldn’t antagonize Southern Democrats by supporting a bill they found offensive. He told critics “you have to wait, even for the best of things, until the right time comes.” Apparently FDR never thought there was a right time to support an anti-lynching bill. Although members of Congress proposed other anti-lynching bills during his long presidency, he never backed them.

In contrast to her husband, Eleanor publicly backed the anti-lynching campaign. When Walter White asked her to attend a NAACP art exhibit called “A Commentary on Lynching,” Eleanor lent her support. Interestingly, FDR did not attempt to stop his wife’s actions. Perhaps FDR agreed with her privately, but Eleanor’s actions also encouraged to blacks to switch their allegiance from the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln to FDR and the Democrats. Ever the politician, FDR was likely happy to have his wife express her feelings to get the African American vote while he placated Southern voters by saying nothing.

Sources:

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Little Rock Nine and the Integration of Central High School

On September 25, 1957, nine African American students entered the front doors of Little Rock Central High School. They were accompanied by federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division so they would not be assaulted or otherwise prevented from entering the building. The experiences of the Little Rock Nine, as the African American students were later called, demonstrate that religion is often used to promote very different viewpoints.

Soldiers from 101st Airborne escort Little Rock Nine students into Central High School

Soldiers from 101st Airborne escort Little Rock Nine students into Central High School, 1957. Source: US Army

In the late 1950s, the idea of integrating white schools was still new. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, said having separate schools for blacks was illegal. Both sides, the integrationists who wanted African American students to have the same access to the better funded schools that whites attended, and the segregationists who wanted to keep things the same, thought they were right. In fact, they used the same religion, Christianity, to support their causes.

Days before the paratroopers arrived, African American students tried to enter Central High, but were blocked by National Guardsmen, citizens from Little Rock, and even students. Some white students used their religion to explain their attitudes. One of these students was Hazel Bryan, a white girl who photographers captured shouting in anger behind black student Elizabeth Eckford. Hazel later said, “I was very religious at that time. I attended church every Sunday morning and night…while no one at the church said that we should protest school integration, we got the feeling that it would be a good thing to do.”

Many white ministers believed that God sanctioned segregation. Some referred to the passage from Genesis 9:20-27 that said one of Noah’s sons was dark-skinned and was cast out as proof that God did not want white and black people to be near each other.

During the 1956 Arkansas governor’s race, candidate Jim Johnson appealed to voters by saying that the South, “one of the last patriotic and Christian strongholds,” would be ruined if the schools were integrated. While Johnson didn’t win the election, he convinced Governor Orval Faubus that he could not support integration of the public schools. Faubus, who had previously taken a more moderate stance on race issues, sent the Arkansas National Guard out to block African American students from entering the high school on September 4, 1957.

In contrast, some Christians and white ministers supported integration of the state’s public schools. On September 4, 1957, three white ministers joined two black ministers and NAACP chairperson Daisy Bates to walk with the African American students on what was supposed to be their first day of school. Unfortunately, only seven of the students heard about this plan. The seven students who did were still turned away by National Guardsmen, but unlike Elizabeth Eckford, they did not have to fend for themselves.

When the Little Rock Nine finally started school, they faced ridicule and sometimes violence from white students. However, other students like Glennys Oakes were members of churches that supported integration. She said that her minister told the young people that the segregationists’ interpretation of the story of Noah’s son was ridiculous. She said, “Our whole perspective was that this [integration] was the right thing to do.” Despite harassment from segregationists, Glennys and five other white students invited black students to sit at their table during lunch.