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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Farwell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR. By Nancy Weiss. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press)

Book Review:

In order to understand what Nancy J. Weiss was trying to argue in Farwell to the Party of Lincoln, one must first understand that the most comprehensive study of African American’s political behavior in the 1930’s was done five years prior to her writing. This book was entitled A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue by Harvard Sitkoff. His main argument was that the New Deal moved to embrace the cause of civil rights, which persuaded African Americans into joining the Democratic Party. Weiss makes mention in her preface that Sitkoff’s “argument is at odds with the one developed” (p. xv), in her book.

Weiss argues that the economic concerns were more a factor in this shift from Republican to Democratic ideology in political affiliation. The New Deal did not address race as a political plank in the Democratic Party’s platform until the 1940 election. Weiss starts with describing the election of 1928 and how Al Smith (the Democrat) candidate for president, used the tactic to make use of African American political leaders from the NAACP. Smith approached Walter White to help direct his campaign among African Americans. White was actually a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light skinned, college educated African American. Because of the racism of this time, during the Nadir period, White “had the contacts and personal stature to function easily in white society” (p. 7). In short, he looked white. There is a picture in the book of Walter White (pg. 98) and if one were to walk by him on the street, it would be difficult to guess that he was African American.
The scope of this book is to outline the period before this shift and how it plays throughout the New Deal. Emphasis is put on economics rather than race in describing the reason African Americans said farewell to the party of Lincoln. African Americans that could vote felt that neither party would benefit issues concerning civil liberties. This came down to economic benefits versus civil rights in the election of 1932.
The quantitative base of the book derives data recorded from polling precincts in the cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburg and New York. Weiss emphasizes the use of these cities because she understood their dense African American populations. Pollsters of the 1930’s rarely focused on race as a specific voting group for data collection. Only Northern African Americans could vote, which makes it difficult to observe political alignment.
This is an important book. It is perhaps the first book that mentions sundown signs in the Midwest. Wendell Willke’s hometown of Elwood, Indiana had no African American residents. “Black newspapers made much of a sign which they claimed had hung there for years: ‘Nigger,’ it declared, ‘don’t let the sun go down on you here.’ It was widely reported that the sign was taken down the day that Willke won the Republican Nomination” (p. 271).
There was no mention of why African Americans were populating northern inner-city ghettos versus rural areas. We now know that African Americans were driven out of small to mid-size communities and forced to migrate to large northern cities. Readers may get the impression that African Americans chose to live in these large cities. I do not believe the author gave this particular topic justice.
Overall, this book has a credible thesis in that it is honest when dealing with the unequal distribution of wealth during this time. Even though many historians rank FDR as one of the greatest presidents, Weiss seems to cut through that and presents her ideas with the impression that FDR’s programs could have been a considerably better deal.
The book reads more like a novel than a textbook even though it has a lot of charts and statistical data. She uses stories to demonstrate important attitudes towards African Americans by political leaders from both parties. Weiss makes use of manuscript collections, newspapers and magazines. She uses over 50 oral interviews as well. The author delivers on the subject she presents in her preface. Weiss shows that the New Deal would have been much better if it would have contained a civil rights component. Farewell to the Party of Lincoln is recommended for average readers and serious students of history as well.

Scott K. Noble
University of Wisconsin-
Stevens Point

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