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New Deal a Square Deal for the Negro?

An African American journal, Opportunity, examines New Deal policies and calls for fair treatment for blacks.

Editorial by Jesse O. Thomas, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life
October, 1933

Through the various channels of the recovery program propelled by the New Deal as a mobilizing slogan, American industry, both agricultural and manufacturing, is being revolutionized. President Roosevelt, the author of the New Deal, is attempting to lift the nation out of this widespread and prolonged depression, which has been so devastating to our social and economic life for the past three years, by reducing unemployment and increasing the buying power of wage earners.

In support of this campaign, there has been set in motion, governmental machinery, whose principle function is to reduce hours per working day, to establish a minimum wage above the starvation level; and at the same time, to increase the price of commodities utilized to meet normal human needs. Codes have been and are still being worked out to cover different types of industries in different population centers. But the universal acceptance of the blanket code is made difficult by the twelve million Negroes in our population.

The perplexing question to the employing class in all parts of America is, "Can the National Recovery Act operate in such a manner as to prevent the Negro from sharing equally with other wage earners?" It is the most important element in the whole recovery set-up to the captains of industry in the South. It has caused a sharp division in the alignment of the white world in this area. Many white people in the South are dogmatically opposed to Negroes participating on equality with white people in any beneficial measures; and they insist that in the administration of relief and in the application of the minimum wage scale there must be an exception to the general rule when it comes to Negroes. Spokesmen for this school of thought insist that the NRA can only be made a success by making exceptions wherever it is applied to the status of Negroes.

There is still another group who insists that this is the opportunity for the South to be lifted above the starvation level by paying the minimum wage as provided by the several codes to all employees regardless of race. They further prophesy that the NRA will be a failure to the extent that it attempts to establish a differential wage based on race.

Expressing the sentiment of the former, the Thomasville (Georgia) Times-Enterprise on Monday, July 31, spoke editorially as follows:

"The various groups in Thomasville have all met, elected their chairman and gone to work studying to see how far they can go in meeting the full requirements. It is safe to say that no store in town with delivery or porter service will sign an agreement to pay that boy fourteen dollars per week. If he does the messenger will be some white boy who will do the work satisfactorily.

"In that event we will have all white jobs and the Negroes out of work except in domestic circles. Many of them are unskilled and can not earn enough to produce the wage even at greatly exalted prices. A delivery boy in a drug store would make fifty trips per week. That is at the rate twenty-five cents per trip, while a Western Union boy will do it for a dime. See where we are, not considering the bicycle furnished and things of that kind?

"When the Negroes get the idea that they are all going to be paid fourteen dollars per week, they are being poorly led, misinformed. They cannot hope to get that and any organization to attempt to put that over will meet with a form of resistance that will prove very very unfortunate to many of them. The house servants are not affected for they get a certain amount of subsistence that counts heavily in their living expenses. It is to be hoped that this question will be soon settled and that no drastic steps will be necessary. Business must be operated ably to win. The government cannot afford to penalize any business in a way that will bring on bankruptcy and that is just what many fear, for they cannot come up to that scale where they hire a hundred or more Negroes and keep going for even a month unless they have great financial reserves. The modifications in that regard are being studied. The labor differential in the South is all that keeps us in competition."

In an editorial appearing in the Atlanta Constitution, under date of August 24th, we find the following in support of the position taken by the Thomasville Times-Enterprise:

"Undoubtedly, the lack of wage differentials, based on the difference in living costs between whites and Negroes, would result in a wide increase in Negro unemployment. This is so clearly true that the recovery administration has already evidenced its realization of the situation, as indicated in the laundry code recently agreed upon.

"When the president's agreement for reemployment was submitted, wages for all manual labor were fixed at $13.50 a week minimum. When the laundry code was submitted by the laundries, the wages for female colored help were fixed at 14 cents per hour for a 45-hour week, which was an increase of 86 per cent. This wage scale was first approved by the NRA, and subsequently revoked, the NRA offering 20 cents minimum, or $9 per week. It was pointed out that the President's agreement of $13.50 per week was prohibitive and would deprive colored women of this class of employment, and that white labor would be substituted.

"The danger of the situation was recognized by the NRA administration and a differential in favor of manual labor of this type was allowed.

"In view of the cheaper living conditions among the Negroes, they are done no injustice by such differentials. Comparatively they can receive the same improvement in condition by a small wage increase that a larger increase would bring to white labor.

"Unless such differentials are granted, the Negro is certain to suffer, because many would lose employment if a common minimum wage for both white and Negro labor was enforced.

"That is a condition that the white people of the South do not wish to see and are certain to protest, for after all, the Negroes, as the New York Times comments, have no better friends than the white people among whom they live and who will not willingly see them done an injustice.

"The national reconstruction act is sufficiently flexible to permit the warding off of this danger to the Negro manual labor of the country, and the recovery administration will no doubt follow the precedent set in this respect in the laundry code."

The Norfolk Virginia-Pilot has the following to say on the same subject:

"To these poor folk the Blue Eagle may be a predatory bird instead of a feathered messenger of happiness.

"A Norfolk restaurant, obliged to raise its minimum wage under the code -- a wage that had been acceptable to Negro workers -- dismissed them and employed Caucasians in their place. This newspaper fears that thousands of Negroes, engaged as porters, janitors, elevator men, messengers, drivers and the dike, will be ousted throughout the country by employers who hire Negroes at present because they can get them cheaper."

Speaking for the other side, Mr. W. T. Anderson, editor of the Macon Telegraph, writes under date of August 5th, perhaps the strongest editorial that has appeared in any paper in the United States in opposition to the differential wage minimum. This editorial was provoked by a letter written to Mr. Anderson by a subscriber in regard to his advocacy of justice being done to the Negro. We quote a paragraph from the letter to Mr. Anderson because it has a significant bearing on this whole subject:

"Your speeches and editorials on the greater things promised the South in the new deal are fine, and every word is gospel; but when you talk about being fair and generous toward the Negro you are on an unpopular side, and you had better watch out."

The Macon Telegraph editorial follows:

"Twenty years ago this newspaper cast about to see if there were not some undeveloped resources, some acres of diamonds, right at our doorsteps that might be utilized to its own advantage and eventually to the advantage of the city and state -- and perhaps the South. Analyzing the matter of business done in Macon and Georgia, and comparing it to cities and states of similar population in Northern sections of this country, it was found that we were away below the standard. Sales of all kinds of goods from our stores were away below stores selling similar goods in other sections.

"Soliciting advertising for nationally-sold goods, manufacturers pointed out that the Southern country was a poor field for advertising -- that results were not comparable with those obtained in other sections of the country. Our population might be fully equal to other sections or cities under comparison -- what was the matter?

"Oh, well," the Telegraph man would reply, "you see about 40 per cent of our population is Negro, and these people don't earn enough to enable them to keep up their part of the buying percentage -- that's why our average is low. They don't earn enough to enable them to subscribe for papers, or buy books, or buy good clothes, or do any of the things that make other cities good for advertising."

"Oh, I see," said the space-buyer, "you count them in the census, but they have no other value! Well, then, instead of your town being a 50,000 city as you claim, so far as business and advertising are concerned, your 40 per cent Negro population deducted leaves you with only 30,000. And that is too small a town for an advertising campaign. Our advertising is not placed in any cities of less than 50,000. It simply doesn't pay, and you have explained this matter of the Negro population not having money enough to buy goods like other cities of 50,000 -- that's something we never understood before. Good day."

"The Telegraph began at that time trying to find a way by which the Negro could be counted in other ways than simply in the census; to make a buyer out of him; to give him a hopeful, orderly, law-abiding outlook on life; to improve his condition by improving his information and efficiency. We counted it as a great achievement if this 40 per cent population could be converted into buying power so as to make Macon rank with industrial towns of 40,000 to 50,000 of the North. It was the only way to help these people up so they might quit pulling white people down. We either had to transform them into population that could make Macon 50,000, or we had to be content with having them hold us down to a city. of 80,000.

"We began publishing a section of the Telegraph for Negroes, containing the news they were especially interested in, placing in their hands a newspaper published by white people who knew their value if they were developed in the right attitude and along the right lines. Where 300 Negroes formerly took the Telegraph, there developed a list of approximately 5,000. These Negroes pay their subscriptions promptly, there is the least trouble with them from all standpoints, and their records for general character, behavior and observance of law, we believe excel that of any other city in this country.

"They have placed Macon in the 50,000 class from a standpoint of subscribers to the two Macon papers. We do not now go to the space-buyer for national advertising and have to explain why we haven't as large a percentage of subscribers to population as other cities.

"We want to go on with this thing, not so much for the benefit of the Negro, as we have said a thousand times, but for the benefit of Macon and Georgia. If his earnings are increased, he becomes a buyer of advertised goods, and Macon rates accordingly -- and the Telegraph prospers accordingly. We are selfish in it. It's good business to uncover these acres of diamonds at our own door-step.

"And what the Negro has done for the Telegraph and Macon he will do for Georgia -- for the merchants and every other interest in this state, if he is given the chance. He had been spending $2,700 per year with the Telegraph before he was given any special consideration; after that he increased his business to $45,000 per annum, not to speak of the additional advertising from national accounts that were brought in by the increased subscriptions.

"All of the above is set down as a living, actual experience in business, so that other businesses and people may profit by it in seeing how much constructive effort might affect their own. Our attitude has been largely one of race prejudice, hatred, jealousy. We have felt that we must hold the Negro back in the matter of wages and everything else, otherwise he might get out of his place, become bigoted. And in holding him back we failed to go forward ourselves, or he held us back with him. It has been argued that we are so blinded with our prejudice and jealousy of the Negro that if in some way it was proposed that all of the Southern Whites and Negroes were to be paid $10,000 each without any cost whatsoever to a Southerner, and it were left to a vote of the Southern whites as to the Negroes receiving it, the whites would vote against it, for fear of spoiling the Negroes, or letting them get away from some of their poverty. We would lose sight entirely of the advantage that would accrue to us by reason of this new money. We would deny them and ourselves because 'it would ruin them, make them bigoted, they wouldn't work.'

"It is grand and glorious that so many of the poorly paid white people have been given benefits under the new deal, such as increased wages, shorter hours and better living conditions. That will have its effect upon the entire section. But this other race that is ever with us must be carried along to better things also. They will help us or they will hinder us. It depends upon our decision. What they did to put Macon on the map from a newspaper standpoint, remove her handicaps, they will do for every other business in Macon -- if wages are paid them ungrudgingly which will afford some spending money beyond a bare living."

Dr. W. W. Alexander, of the Interracial Commission, spoke thus for the interracially minded white South:

"Employers of labor who are urging a lower wage level for Negroes under the Code of the N. R. A. are offering a dangerous proposal. If put into effect, it would undermine the President's program of economic recovery in the South, and at the same time would cut the economic foundations from under the feet of white working men. Negroes, pressed to accept and even to ask for such a differential, are vigorously and, I think, quite properly objecting. They are unwilling to be put in the role of 'scabs,' under-cutting the white man's wage and standard of living. There can be no economic recovery for the South that does not include the Negro. The wiser economic leaders will not acquiesce in a plan so obviously unsound."

As a threat of intimidation to its Negro employees, a pencil factory in Atlanta put a pink slip in the pay envelope in all of its more than one hundred Negro employees during the first week of September, which contained, among other things, the following:

"If the 'false friends' of the colored people do not stop their propaganda about paying the same wages to colored and white employees this company will be forced to move the factory to a section where the minimum wage will produce the greatest production. Stop your 'friends' from talking you out of your job.' "

The automobile dealers of Florida appeared before the Recovery Commission of that state contending that if they were compelled to pay their Negro filling station attendants more money and work them less hours than competing stations, it would make unfair competition. Their request for exemption from the code paying the minimum wage to Negro labor was granted. The exemption asked by T. R. Williams, of the Florida Service Station, was disapproved. He desired to work a Negro porter 84 hours a week for $7.

In contrast to the above, a number of employers have complied with both the spirit and letter of the law. As a result, many Negroes are beneficiaries of the minimum wage schedule set by the NRA. It is true that many others have lost their jobs on account of the enforcement of the minimum wage scale. We have not gone far enough and there is not enough authentic information available for anyone to state with any degree of scientific authority just to what extent the Negro will benefit or how much he will suffer as a result of the enforcement of these codes.

It must be recognized that the President and his administration have departed from the usual custom of appointing political demagogues as heads of these several important missions. The highest type of men and women the nation can afford, with Northern and Southern background, have been chosen. Mr. A. L. Johnstone, of Newberry, South Carolina, Regional Director of the Relief of the Southeastern Sea Board, is an example of the calibre of men chosen to interpret the policies of the administration as well as charged with the responsibility of their enforcement. Mr. Johnstone is a man of great courage, foresight, wisdom and understanding.

The Federal Government, however, finds itself in a paradoxical situation. It has virtually conceded that it cannot stop lynching, that it is powerless to enforce the provisions of the 11th and 15th Amendments. Beyond a Supreme Court decision, it cannot nullify the almost universal practices of residential segregation, or render ineffective the discriminatory practices of the Democratic primary. Too many of the employers of labor whom the government,through its National Recovery Act and the several codes, is insisting upon paying the minimum wage, are members of school boards and otherwise identified with business corporations and industrial concerns in this area whose policy in dealing with Negroes runs counter to the equalization provision of the minimum wage schedule. In the public schools, Negro teachers receive from 50 to 75 per cent of the salary of the white teachers with the same qualifications and a teacher-load invariably much heavier.

The double economic standard makes itself manifest in the relationship of the Negro wage earners to whites in every department of our economic and political life in this section. This has become such an established and accepted policy that the proposed shift required to meet the provisions of the NRA is little less than revolutionary.

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