By 1914, Tillman was not on the ballot and he used his influence to defeat Blease in the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered in South Carolina after the disenfranchisement of blacks in 1895. Indeed, so intent was Tillman on defeating his former protégé that he threatened to have the literacy tests designed for blacks used against Blease’s poor white followers as well.
Among the more ridiculous tactics Blease used in the 1914 campaign to save his position was an attack on doctors, whom he charged with abusing young women by examining their private parts during physical examinations. He threatened to kill any doctor who examined his daughter against her will and to pardon anyone who did the same. Fearful that other people were not as outraged as he was about doctors simply doing their jobs, Blease implied that doctors were allowing “Negro janitors” to observe their examinations.
Of course, Blease did not avoid attacking blacks directly in his efforts to gin up the votes of ignorant white textile workers. “The Negro race has absolutely no standard of morality,” he declared. “They are, in that respect, a class by themselves as marital infidelity seems to be their more favorite pastime.” Blease said that giving education to a black man would only “ruin a good field hand and make a bad convict.” He warned that “the black ape and baboon” was a constant threat to rape white women whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Partly because of Tillman’s efforts, Blease was defeated in the 1914 Democratic primary and again in 1916. In 1918, Blease retaliated by running against Tillman for the Senate himself. However, Blease misread the mood of the people regarding World War I and ran a strongly pacifist campaign, attacking Woodrow Wilson and opposing American intervention in the war. After voters reacted very negatively to this approach, he tried to switch course, but it was too late and he was defeated.
Six years later, Blease ran again for the Senate; this time winning election. As a U.S. Senator, Blease was best known for continuing the Tillman tradition of making racially inflammatory speeches on the Senate floor. For example, in a 1928 speech, Democrat Blease blasted Republican Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover:
Republicans are now talking about nominating that man for President of the United States . . . a man who is in favor of making young white girls use the same water-closets as Negro men, making young white girls sit by them day by day. If there was nothing else, Mr. President, a Negro would be offensive because of his natural human smell. You can take a Negro and take a tub of the hottest water you can get him into, and use all the soap you can use, then take him out and cover him with cologne, and in five minutes he will smell just as offensive as he did before you washed him, because it is human nature, and he could not get rid of the odor. Then this man [Hoover], who wants to be President of the United States of America, this Englishman, wants to make white girls associate on equal terms with Negroes. . . . Mr. President, it is a shame, it is a disgrace.
The only disgrace, of course, was that the Democratic voters of South Carolina—the only ones whose votes counted—sent such an obnoxious racist to Washington to represent them. But by 1930, they came to their senses and replaced Blease with James F. Byrnes, a much more genteel racist. Twice more, in 1934 and 1938, Blease attempted to make a comeback as governor, but was rejected by voters both times. He died in 1942.
There is no mention of blacks in the Democratic Party’s 1932 platform. Much of the black community was, in fact, less than enthusiastic about the Roosevelt-Garner ticket. Said the New York Amsterdam News, a prominent black newspaper, “We fear that equal rights in the National Democratic Party means exactly what they meant in 1913 when the Woodrow Wilson administration came into power—equal rights for the white man but hell and damnation for the colored man.”
From the black perspective, the best thing Roosevelt had going for him in 1932 simply was that he wasn’t Herbert Hoover. Hoover was certainly no racist—he abolished segregation in the Commerce Department while secretary” But he had the tinniest of tin ears when it came to practical politics, especially when it came to blacks. Hoover needlessly alienated them by purging blacks from Republican organizations in the South in order to appeal to whites; nominating a justice to the Supreme Court, John J. Parker, who was widely viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a racist; and allowing the War Department to segregate black Gold Star Mothers during a government-financed trip to European graveyards. Many blacks also believed that Hoover had condoned discriminatory treatment while he was in charge of federal relief after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
It is impossible to calculate precisely to what extent New Deal policies raised black unemployment above what otherwise would have been the case. But it is revealing that well after the beginning of the Depression but before the New Deal began, unemployment for black workers was actually lower than for whites. In April 1930, the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent for black males and 6.9 percent for white males. Seven years later, in late 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.
Despite all of this, black support for Roosevelt grew sharply between 1932 and 1936. Contrary to popular belief, Hoover actually carried a majority of the black vote in 1932. It was not until 1936 that blacks really deserted the Republican Party in large numbers. A key reason appears to have been the federal government’s welfare efforts through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which literally put food on the table for a large percentage of black families. According to one estimate, 30 percent of the entire black population was receiving relief in January 1935. As a contemporary analyst explained, blacks were profoundly grateful for this aid, little as it was, and rewarded the political party that delivered the goods:
Many Negroes in Chicago came in for a large share of relief funds and, consequently, were greatly impressed with the humanitarian aims of the New Deal. This sentiment was played upon and encouraged by both the national and local Democratic organizations. It was soon evident that their security was tied up with direct relief.
This same analyst quoted a Republican precinct captain in Chicago, who explained his party’s loss of the black vote this way: “That Abe Lincoln was a Republican is not near so important as their daily bread.’ It didn’t matter that the disbursement of aid was in the hands of local officials who often discriminated severely against blacks. They were grateful that they were getting something, even if it was less than whites received. “Let Jesus lead me and welfare feed me,” Depression-era blacks would say.
Ironically, on August 14, 1935, Roosevelt signed into law the biggest expansion of social welfare in American history—the Social Security Act—and left most blacks out of it. Although initially proposed as universal legislation that would benefit all workers, the bill Roosevelt ultimately signed excluded most blacks by exempting domestic and agricultural workers from coverage. For this reason, many historians today view the original law as inherently racist. As Robert Lieberman of Columbia University recently wrote:
The Old-Age Insurance provisions of the Social Security Act were founded on racial exclusion. In order to make a national program of old-age benefits palatable to powerful Southern congressional barons, the Roosevelt administration acceded to a Southern amendment excluding agricultural and domestic employee from OAI coverage. This provision alone eliminated more than half of the African Americans in the labor force and over three-fifths of black Southern workers.
While Roosevelt himself was not responsible for the provision that limited Social Security coverage for blacks, it is also a fact that he didn’t fight very hard to prevent his proposal from being watered down this way Nor can Roosevelt be excused for ignorance. The NAACP even testified against the Social Security Act before the Senate Finance Committee. Said the NAACP representative, Charles H. Houston, the more the organization studied the legislation, “the more holes appeared, until from a Negro’s point of view it looks like a sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”
Bruce Bartlett, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 54-55, 112, 118-119.