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Fragments On Back-room Politics And Civil Rights

April 2024
4min read

Despite hour upon hour of repeated listening, some conversations simply defy transcription. Perhaps improvements in the technology of sound will some day allow them all to be reconstituted; in the meantime, here are passages that seemed too intriguing to omit.

One day in late September, FDR was closeted with several aides evidently going over a list of requests for federal posts made by party leaders across the country.

First up is Frank Hague, the notorious boss of Jersey City, with whom Roosevelt had forged an arm’s-length alliance for the duration of the campaign. Hague’s nominee is so crooked, one aide says, that Hague himself has just called to say “he’s unfit, but he says he’s also got to write you… that he’s all right. But he doesn’t mean it.” FDR laughs, then roars: “Very simple, send him a letter saying we cannot appoint ____ [banging his desk]. Give me another name !”

Another nominee from Oklahoma is perhaps better qualified but, FDR says, “He’s the fella that raped the girl in his office and paid $3,000 [to get off], and [chuckling] he’s led a clean life, so far as we know, ever since!” He doesn’t get a job, either.

With the election approaching and Willkie making inroads into the black vote, Roosevelt met on September 27 with three civil rights leaders to discuss the difficult question of integrating the armed forces. Present were A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Walter White, head of the NAACP, and T. Arnold Hill, acting secretary of the Urban League, as well as Navy Secretary Frank Knox and Robert P. Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of War. In the recorded portion of their discussion, Randolph’s enormous voice and orotund delivery come close to matching even FDR’s.

RANDOLPH : With all due respect, Mr. President, I thought I might say on the part of the Negro people, they feel they are not wanted in the armed forces of the country, and they feel they have earned their right to participate in every phase of the government by virtue of their record in past wars since the Revolution…. They are feeling that they are being shunted about… that they are not wanted now.

FDR : Of course, the main point to get across is… that we are not… [as we did] in the World War, confining the Negro to the noncombat services. We’re putting them right in, proportionately, into the combat services….

RANDOLPH : We feel that’s fine.

FDR :… Which is, something …. The thing is, we’ve got to work into this…. Now, suppose you have a Negro regiment… here , and right over here on my right in line, would be a white regiment…. Now what happens after a while, in case of war? Those people get shifted from one to the other. The thing gets sort of backed into…gradually working in the field together, you may back into it….

[Randolph argues that since blacks and whites work together well in the field of organized labor, they ought to be able to do so in the armed forces.]

FDR (seeming to agree): Up on the Hudson River where… I come from, we have a lot of brickwork…. [ RANDOLPH : Oh, yes?] … up around Fishkill… and, heavens, they have the same union where the white workers and the Negro workers do most of the brickwork. And they get along; no trouble at all!

[Randolph agrees heartily, then asks Knox about the prospects for integrating the Navy. The Naval Secretary, unalterably opposed to the idea, minces no words.]

KNOX : We have a factor in the Navy that is not so in the Army, and that is that these men live aboard ship. And in our history we don’t take Negroes into a ship’s company….

FDR : If you could have a Northern ship and a Southern ship it would be different. [Laughs.] But you can’t do that.

The black leaders left the meeting somewhat encouraged—only to be outraged several days later when the White House announced that the traditional policy of segregation would go unchanged—and implied that Randolph, White, and Hill had agreed with that decision.

Randolph and White denounced the decision as a “stab in the back for democracy.” The Negro press took up the cry—and the Democrat’s cause among blacks was further weakened a few days later when FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, kicked a black policeman when he refused to allow him to cross a police line.

”…there’s no reason… why we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darned good at it…”

FDR met again on October 10 with Secretary Knox and others to survey the political damage and see what could be done in a symbolic way to calm things down. Only a few moments of this meeting were recorded, and much of that is unintelligible, but FDR can clearly be heard suggesting to Knox that “since we are training a certain number of musicians on board ship—the ship’s band —there’s no reason … why we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darned good at it …. Look, to increase the opportunity , that’s what we’re after….”

In addition, FDR thought the Army and Navy ought to have black spokesmen at headquarters—as he had when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I.

FDR : In the Navy Department in the old days I had a boy who volunteered by the name of Pryor . [This is evidently a reference to Frederick D. Pryor, secretarial clerk to General Edwin “Pa” Watson, FDR’s military aide.]… He used to be my colored messenger. A young kid, and Louis Howe was terribly fond of him. And when we got back here in thirty-three, Louis Howe said to me, “The one man I want for my office is Pryor.” Well, Pryor, now , is one of the best fellows we’ve got in the office and he handles all my… cases from the Department of Justice…. He summarizes the whole thing…. A great boy…. He was just a clerk in the Navy Department and I used him . People went to him with any kind of question. Can we do this ? Can we do that ? Can we get another opening there ? And he was of very, very great service. I think you can do that in the Army and the Navy … get somebody colored [who will act as] the clearinghouse….

—A.H.

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