HARVARD SITKOFF. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 352. $29.95. Paperback. ISBN: 9780195367539. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1978.

A New Deal for Blacks was the first book published by Harvard Sitkoff, a Civil Rights scholar and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Hampshire. The book was a reworking of Sitkoff’s doctoral dissertation, “The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The New Deal Era,” written at Columbia University in 1975 under the supervision of New Deal era and FDR historian, William Leutchtenburg. Conceived after Sitkoff’s short stint in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, the work became the first installment in a multi-volume series he planned on the emergence of Civil Rights as a national issue. It began as only an introductory chapter to his proposed work on the Civil Rights Movement during the context of the Second World War, but it became his entire dissertation.

While scholars typically trace the origins of the Civil Rights Movement to the year 1941—the beginnings of the March on Washington Movement and the passage of Executive Order 8802, prohibiting race discrimination in the national defense industry—Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks re-positions the Civil Rights Movement as a legacy of the 1930s. He argues that the fruits of Civil Rights militancy, radicalism, and racial egalitarianism only began to ripen in the early 1940s because they had been sown during the radical, New Deal era, when African-Americans switched over to the Democratic Party in large numbers and an interracial coalition of agitators united under the banner of racial equality.

To Sitkoff, the 1930s was a transformative period marked by the building and strengthening of a powerful, interracial coalition dedicated to the pursuit of equality for African-Americans. This broad, interracial coalition included prominent political allies like FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes; Leftist labor organizations like the CIO, the UAW, and the Communist Party; black advocacy groups like the NAACP, National Urban League, and National Negro Congress; and black-and-white intellectuals like Walter White, Kelly Miller, and Joel Spingarn. This interracial alliance also received help from the Popular Front, the rulings on race in the Supreme Court, Progressive scientists and sociologists who denounced theories of black inferiority, and numerous other private, local, state, and federal groups. Overall, A New Deal for Blacks reads like a comprehensive collection (or a mosaic) of essays on the growth of this new, black-liberal alliance during the 1930s. Twelve separate chapters detail African-Americans’ increasing involvement in such arenas as the Democratic and Communist Parties, the labor movement, the legal fights with segregation and lynching, and scientific ideas of race and racism. Very little of this information appears to be original—even when considered in the context of the mid-1970s, when it was first written—but most of it had probably not been marshaled together under the banner of such a unique banner before.

Sitkoff does not deny the racial limitations of the New Deal program—which have since been articulated in Ira Katznelson’s 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White—nor does he claim that racial equality was actually achieved by end of WWII. In the early 1940s, Sitkoff acknowledges that most black Americans were still relegated to working menial, unskilled labor and living in ghettos and slums, deprived of the vote in the south and segregated in the north. For Sitkoff, however, the New Deal era was a “watershed” moment in the history of American race relations not because equality was realized, but, rather, because the chess pieces had all been pushed into place. The 1930s witnessed the creation of the social, political, and intellectual infrastructure that would come to challenge Jim Crow so effectively in the following generation. The “disjointed” efforts and “extreme privation” of the 1920s and early 1930s had been supplanted by a robust alliance of diverse interests after 1935, each somewhat invested in the noble mission of racial equality. These changes are evident in key successes throughout the book. For example, by the early 1940s, the number of black federal employees had tripled, the NAACP membership had doubled, and fair employment and anti-discrimination policies were receiving traction in trade union organizations and the halls of the federal government. By no means was racial equality secured, but the writing was certainly on the wall, so to speak.[1]

But Sitkoff’s book does have its weaknesses, like all academic works. In his eagerness to see continuity from the 1930s to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s, Sitkoff under-estimates the successes of the 1920s and over-estimates the dedication of his alliance (at least some of its branches) to the ideals of racial egalitarianism. The book is a classic case of a contextual chapter becoming the book itself, something that happens often with dissertation projects. The preface to the anniversary edition explains this process well. Sitkoff wanted to study the origins of the Civil Rights Movement, which he himself had briefly participated in, but there were no scholars of the Civil Rights Movement at Columbia University, where he was currently attending graduate school. To correct this problem, he sought the help of Professor Leutchtenburg, who was an expert on the New Deal era, and Leutchtenburg made him write a contextual chapter on the political developments of the 1930s, which was his area of expertise.

As a result of this process, Stikoff began to see the 1930s as integral in the development of the social, intellectual, and political changes that paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. He re-positioned his thesis to reflect this change of attitude, and he then adopted the 1920s as his new contextual chapter (what the 1930s had been for him before). Perhaps this explains why organizations and efforts of the 1920s are almost always depicted in A New Deal for Blacks as either failures or only significant in a cultural or insular sense. This includes the origins of the Jazz Age, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the NAACP in the 1920s, the UNIA, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and more. Most of these have since been rescued from interpretations of relative ineffectiveness or irrelevance. But in this sense, it appears that Sitkoff believes white racism, at its high-water mark in the 1920s, is the main reason that these organizations were ineffective, not because of the devotion and ambition of their members. 

Likewise, Sitkoff perhaps over-emphasizes the commitment of the federal government and labor organizations like the AFL, CIO, and UAW International to the cause of racial equality. He often takes claims of anti-discrimination at face value, forgetting to actually analyze how those claims played out on the ground and whether blacks were really integrated into positions of union leadership or skilled or semi-skilled labor in the workplace. In the 1930s, the Great Migration ensured that blacks became a constituency for the Democratic Party to appeal to in the north. This is important because historians do not want to convince language or rhetoric for interracial egalitarianism with actual change. 

A New Deal for Blacks is a fun book to read, with a lot of great information on the development of black leadership in the 1930s, especially the intellectual ideas that began to challenge white racism. But Sitkoff’s thesis is essentially un-falsifiable and, therefore,  not as helpful. Obviously we can see the changes of one decade in the events of its predecessor. That is, probably, the  entire basis of history. I am quite sure that Sitkoff would have also found the origins of the 1930s in the developments of the 1920s, if he had conducted a similar study on that decade.

[1]Harvard Sitkoff. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), xx, 164, 26.