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During the Great Depression, African Americans were disproportionately affected by unemployment: they were the first fired and the last hired. After Roosevelt was elected, he began to institute his “New Deal,” a series of economic programs intended to offer relief to the unemployed and recovery of the national economy. Though African Americans were not the intended audience for these programs, they benefitted as many citizens did. Labor laws that encouraged union organization and defined a minimum wage also supported black workers.
Roosevelt’s relief programs made him popular with many African Americans, though he shied away from aggressively promoting civil rights or an anti-lynching law, for fear of alienating Southern whites. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was more sympathetic to black causes. She created a stir when she helped to move Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial after the black singer was prohibited from performing at Constitution Hall because of her race.
After the United States entered World War II, Roosevelt quickly moved to shore up African American support and silence foreign propaganda about the treatment of the negro in America. He ordered the justice department to not only pass anti-lynching laws but to finally begin enforcing longstanding anti-peonage laws aimed at ending forced labor in the South.
Historian Risa Goluboff explains how The New Deal was a watershed moment.
Historian Risa Goluboff explains FDR's administration's strategy on Plessy vs. Ferguson.