D’Souza: Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ

From Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, pp 132-141


At first, the Democrats saw no cause to abandon southern segregation for northern progressivism. Rather, they simply held on to the one while embracing the other. These two forms of bigotry came together in the person of Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. “During the Wilson years,” historian Ira Katznelson writes, “the composite of racism and progressive liberalism came to dominate the Democratic Party.” 12

Earlier we saw how Wilson promoted segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. This might suggest Wilson was the prototypical racist southern Democrat. Wilson, however, was a man of the South who had gone north to become the president of Princeton University and also governor of New Jersey. There Wilson was exposed to northern progressive ideas. He became a zealous convert to social Darwinism.

Wilson now spoke in terms of a natural hierarchy in which black and brown people were simply less evolved than whites. The case of Orientals—the yellow people—was complicated: Wilson considered them an advanced race, but for reasons unexplained this group had “degenerated,” basically lowering them into the black and brown category.

In order to reduce the numbers of these groups, Wilson championed the same type of eugenic birth control policies that Sanger advocated. As New Jersey governor, Wilson signed legislation that formed a Board of Examiners of the Feebleminded, Epileptics and Other Defectives. The law enabled the state to regulate procreation for women with a criminal record, women living in poorhouses, and women broadly classified as “feebleminded” or “defective.”

Wilson’s progressivism can be seen in the way he championed centralized power in Washington, D.C., and repudiated the South’s traditional political doctrine of states rights. As president, Wilson openly advocated that America’s founding principles be replaced by centralized planning. Wilson recognized that the Founders had created a federal system that divided power between the national government and the states. But this formula, Wilson insisted, was out of date. “We are not bound,” Wilson said, “to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence.” 13

This is a remarkable statement; no previous American president spoke like that. Previous presidents might quarrel over the meaning of the founding, but none before Wilson scornfully dismissed the founding. Wilson denounced the Founders in the name of progressive centralization of power. For Wilson, centralized planning and power were the way of the future; they represented progress. Those who espoused such ideas he cherished as fellow progressives; those who opposed them he considered regressive.


While Wilson balanced racism and progressivism, maintaining a kind of equilibrium between the two, Franklin Roosevelt tilted the scales decisively in favor of progressivism. Even so, FDR didn’t replace racism with progressivism; rather, he maintained his governing coalition through a bargain with racism that lasted throughout his three-term presidency.

The facts are laid out in historian Ira Katznelson’s book Fear Itself. Katznelson writes that Roosevelt’s New Deal relied on “an intimate partnership with those in the South who preached white supremacy.” Racist Democrats, Katznelson says, “acted not on the fringes but as an indispensable part of the governing political party.” Roosevelt’s progressivism relied for its success on a pact with bigotry. Without racism, in other words, there would never have been a New Deal.

Following his election in 1932, FDR sought to create a Democratic majority in American politics. To do so, he needed the support of the “solid South,” which is to say the Democratic South. FDR pitched his progressive platform to the southern Democrats, and they immediately saw how nicely progressivism dovetailed with their existing racist schemes. The southern Democrats recognized that they too could use entitlements for some to extract money from the general population, and also that this process gave government something important to do, thus consolidating its power over the productive sector.

But the southern Democrats had no intention of giving up their existing racist racket. They wanted progressivism, but they wanted it in addition to racism, not as a substitute for it. So the southern Democrats told FDR they would come on board under two conditions. First, FDR must make no effort to overturn segregation or lynching. Indeed, FDR must oppose desegregation measures and block the anti-lynching schemes of blacks and Republicans. Moreover, FDR must not hold it against Democrats if they belonged to white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

FDR agreed to this first condition and upheld his end of the bargain. At the White House, he continued Wilson’s policy of segregation among the household staff. He banned black reporters from White House press conferences. Throughout his presidency, he continued Wilson’s segregation of the armed forces.

When Republicans during World War II called for integrated fighting units, FDR said that to change the existing structure of segregation would “produce situations destructive to morale.” Working with his Democratic majority in Congress, FDR ensured that anti-lynching bills were defeated; he even pressured northern Democrats to table or oppose such measures.

As Katznelson points out, some of Roosevelt’s closest allies in the Senate were notorious racists like Hugo Black of Alabama; Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi; James Byrnes of South Carolina; and Claude Pepper of Florida. All were progressives on economic issues, and staunch backers of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Pepper was so left-wing on issues other than race that his nickname was “Red” Pepper. Still, these were the Democrats who filibustered anti-lynching legislation. Roosevelt made sure that their filibusters were successful and that such bills never became law.

In 1934 a black man accused of rape and murder was caught by a posse and murdered in front of a crowd of four thousand people, including women and children. The victim was castrated and burned, and his body hung from a tree. Outraged at this expression of mob justice, Republicans once again tried to push an anti-lynching measure through Congress. Roosevelt remained silent on the issue, one of his spokesmen saying that the president believed that lynching was undesirable but it remained a matter for the states to decide for themselves.

The southern Democrats launched a procedural adjournment move to kill the anti-lynching bill. This maneuver could have been defeated had northern Democrats allied with Republicans. They did not. “What is striking about this,” Katznelson writes, “is not the overwhelming support of southern Democrats or the comparable degree of opposition by Republicans. It is, rather, the critical support for adjournment provided by non-southern Democrats, almost half of whom voted to support the South’s procedural move.” 14

Among the racist southern Democrats who were FDR’s allies, Bilbo was probably the most notorious. FDR backed Bilbo’s selection as chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, effectively making him mayor of the city. Listen to how this man talked. “You know folks, I run Washington. I’m Mayor there. Some niggers came to see me one time to try to get the right to vote there. Their leader was a smart nigger. Of course he was half white. I told him that the nigger would never vote in Washington. Hell, if we give ’em the right to vote up there, half the niggers in the South will move into Washington and we’ll have a black government.” 15


FDR appointed two members of his racist cabal, James Byrnes and Hugo Black, to the Supreme Court. What made Black’s appointment controversial was that he was a former Ku Klux Klan member. His law partner Crampton Harris, Cyclops of the Birmingham Klan, had introduced Black to the Klan. Black became an active member, marching in parades and addressing Klan rallies throughout Alabama.

Black was also known as a Klan lawyer, both representing Klansmen and making effective appeals to Klan-dominated juries. In court cases, Black specialized in appeals to racial prejudice, asking questions in court like, “Was he standing at the door where this nigger woman came in?” When Black ran successfully for the Senate, his campaign manager was James Esdale, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Klan.

Republicans protested Black’s nomination. Echoing Bill Clinton’s justification for Robert Byrd, Black protested that he simply joined the Klan in order to advance his career. “The Klan,” he said “was in effect the underground Democratic Party in Alabama.” 16 Here Black was telling the truth, and what a telling truth it is!

One might expect northern Democrats to be outraged at this candid confession of Black’s participation in the Klan for self-advancement. This, however, was not the case. Democrats across the country backed Black’s nomination. One of them, Senator William King of Utah, said he saw no reason why membership in the KKK should disqualify someone for elevation to the Supreme Court.

FDR did not directly address the issue, but the president’s private feelings were later revealed by Black himself in a 1968 memo. “President Roosevelt told me there was no reason for my worrying about having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He said that some of his best friends and supporters 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.” 17

The southern Democrats had a second demand for FDR. They demanded that a disproportionate share of New Deal programs be steered toward the South and that blacks, who mainly worked as domestic servants and farm laborers, be excluded from those programs. No “New Deal” for the blacks!

Again, FDR agreed. As Katznelson describes, he wrote his New Deal legislation in such a way that the South received a large fraction of the goodies. A telling example was the TVA Act, which involved the construction of huge power and navigation dams on the Tennessee River. The program benefited Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. An elated Mississippi Democrat, John Rankin, boasted that TVA would produce “power that will exceed the amount of physical strength of all the slaves freed by the Civil War.” 18

Keeping up his end of the bargain, FDR also ensured that the two main occupations involving blacks, namely domestic and farm labor, were excluded from federal benefits. This is a fact that progressive historiography usually omits, because of its devastating significance. Most blacks were excluded from New Deal programs! The grim consequence of FDR’s diabolical pact with the racists was that millions of blacks were ineligible to receive Social Security, unemployment, and a host of other benefits that were being offered to workers in every other type of industry.

One might think that blacks, seeing all this, would indignantly repudiate FDR and his progressive pact with bigotry. But during the 1930s blacks were desperate. The Depression hit blacks harder than anyone else. So the black leadership decided that the crumbs being offered by the progressive Democrats were at least more than they were getting before.

New Deal programs like the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were segregated and offered the best jobs to whites. Even so, blacks saw they at least offered employment to tens of thousands of blacks. The administration denied FHA loans to blacks seeking to move into white neighborhoods, but they did assist blacks in buying homes in black areas. Other federal projects backed by the Works Project Administration (WPA) also alleviated black unemployment.

Recognizing that FDR was steering benefits their way, blacks during the New Deal era moved steadily toward the Democratic Party, in a sense selling their votes for a mess of pottage. By 1936, 75 percent of blacks became Democrats. This trend has only continued since then, so that today around 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic and only 10 percent vote Republican. From 1865 to 1936, the trend was exactly the reverse: approximately 90 percent of blacks voted Republican and only 10 percent voted Democratic.

So this was a switch: blacks switched from Republican to Democrat. Democrats could scarcely believe their good fortune. They found that they could continue to exclude, exploit, and subjugate blacks, and still get the black vote. Democratic strategists at the time expressed their amazement and delight that blacks votes came so cheap. In subsequent decades, progressive Democrats recognized that they could secure a virtually permanent hold on the black vote by creating plantation-style dependency on the state.


The third member of this progressive troika—building upon Wilson and FDR—was Lyndon Johnson. During Johnson’s tenure the Democratic Party completed the tilt away from old-style racism toward progressivism. In his early career, Johnson was a typical racist southern Democrat. But over time Johnson evolved.

What shape did this evolution take? Johnson came to understand that keeping blacks and other minorities in the Democratic camp required him to be more creative, more flexible. Not that Johnson became a convert to the idea of black improvement. On the contrary, he was convinced that keeping blacks poor and dependent was essential to maintaining long-term Democratic supremacy.

Why was this? Part of the reason was to retain the black vote. If blacks became independent they would have no more reason to vote Democratic. There was also a second reason. Black suffering gave Democratic progressivism a continuing claim to “social justice.” In other words, black hardship provided a fund of moral capital that Democrats could use to cajole and intimidate voters into supporting a centralized progressive state and keeping progressive Democrats in power.

Johnson and his fellow Democrats cynically recognized that as long as blacks were beholden to them—as long as they stayed on the Democratic plantation—anyone who dissented from the progressive program could then be accused of being anti-black. Republicans who opposed progressivism could be charged with being racist! Blacks themselves—politically beholden to their providers—could be counted on to make these accusations. They could also be counted on to keep other blacks on the progressive plantation.

In an incredible twist, black conservatives and the party of black emancipation and of civil rights could now be tarred with the charge of bigotry and being against civil rights. Of course black leaders needed help to sustain these charges, especially with young people. So progressive historians and pundits kept up a drumbeat of progressive Democratic propaganda. To this day, they continue to recite those mantras, hoping that young people will swallow their story line about Republican perfidy and Democratic virtue.

What Lyndon Johnson actually thought about blacks was something else entirely. Here’s what Johnson actually said, in a conversation with Democratic Senator Richard Russell of Georgia: “These niggers, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they got something now that they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.” Otherwise, Johnson concluded, blacks may start voting Republican and “it’ll be Reconstruction all over again.”

This was not the only time Johnson—even after his evolution from a racist Democrat to a progressive Democrat—used the N word. Traveling on Air Force One with two Democratic governors, Johnson told them how important it was to him that they vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The governors asked why. Johnson replied that it was part of his long-term strategy. “I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for two hundred years.” 20

We can see from this statement that Johnson—hailed as a progressive civil rights hero—remained a thoroughgoing racist. I don’t mean to place him in a special category; rather, he belongs in the same category as a multitude of other Democrats. The significance of Johnson’s statement is not in his predictable bigotry, but in his recognition that, for the first time, Democrats needed the black vote.

Previously Democrats sought to prevent blacks from voting in the South, and maintained Democratic majorities by monopolizing the white vote. This was done, as we saw, through boisterous appeals to racism and white supremacy. But as the South became more prosperous economically during the 1950s and 1960s, the racist appeal lost its currency and white southern Democrats realized that they had more in common with the Republican Party. They identified with the GOP idea of controlling your own destiny and improving your own life.

In a remarkable book, The End of Southern Exceptionalism, Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston make the case that white southerners switched to the Republican Party not because of racism but because they identified the GOP with economic opportunity and upward mobility. As the agrarian South became more industrial and then post-industrial, white southerners switched parties not because of race but because of economic prospects. Interestingly, whites moved to the Republican Party for the same reason blacks moved to the Democratic Party: both groups saw the journey as congruent with their economic self-interest.

Shafer and Johnston show how Democrats tried, and failed, to keep southern whites in the fold by appealing to racism. Southern whites, however, migrated to the GOP as the party that better represented their interests and aspirations. Shafer and Johnston supply reams of data to substantiate their claim that the poorest, most racist whites remained Democratic, while more prosperous whites who were not racist were more likely to become Republicans. To the horror of the Democratic Party, the South moved in the Republican direction as white southerners embraced the GOP as the non-racist party of economic opportunity and patriotism. 21

Johnson grew up in rural Texas; he fully understood the politics of the South. He knew that if the Democratic Party were to maintain its viability in the region, it would have to rely on the black vote as never before. This is the basis of Johnson’s insistence that the Democrats, however reluctantly, offer blacks something. Johnson wanted to give as little as possible—he needed the blacks poor and dependent, rather than self-reliant and upwardly-mobile—but he was candid that the rules had changed and blacks had to be bought off with new benefits in order to keep them on the Democratic plantation.

Now we can understand Johnson’s motive for championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson fought hard for it because his party depended on it. He also knew that the main resistance would come from his own party, as indeed it did. A later generation of progressives would rewrite textbooks creating the false impression that the Republicans were the ones in opposition. Johnson knew better. He actively recruited Republicans across the aisle to help him defeat his fellow Democrats who feverishly tried to block the landmark laws of the Civil Rights Movement.

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