African-Americans in the New Deal

Mary McLeod Bethune in front of the Capitol.

Mary McLeod Bethune in front of the Capitol.Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images



The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt
By Jill Watts

There’s long been a standard story of the civil rights movement. It starts on a December evening in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. With that single act of defiance, the story says, Parks set off a movement that sped across the South of the 1950s and 1960s, through Little Rock and Greensboro, Anniston and Ole Miss, Birmingham and Selma, and brought Jim Crow tumbling down. Then, in the bitter spring of 1968, the movement went to Memphis. There it died, on a motel balcony awash in its martyr’s blood.

It’s a profoundly powerful story, in large part because it’s a sacred one, built on a fundamental faith in sacrifice and suffering as the route to redemption. And for years historians have been pushing against it. They’ve stretched the movement’s chronology, extended its geography, recovered all-but-forgotten events and given its overlooked activists their due, all in an effort to make its history deeper, richer and more troubling than the standard story lets it be.

“The Black Cabinet,” by Jill Watts, the author of books on Hattie McDaniel and Father Divine, seems to take that revisionist project in a less than promising direction. In the early days of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt named…

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