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Howard Zinn’s book

Howard Zinn’s book gives a very interesting perspective on American History. He gives it in the perspective of individuals who had first hand accounts. The first hand accounts compiled give a slightly different version to American history than most history books care to mention. The accounts give the reader a broader view to explain The New Deal Program. It also helped to show how these visions of social justice contradicted and helped the condition of African Americans during the 1930’s and 1940’s and how did this all play into governmental power during that period in history.

The United States governmental powers grew from social tensions beginning in the early 1900’s through World War II. Americans were disillusioned after WWI with the American government, so the government in efforts to keep control created social laws that on the outside appeared to show help for Americans while on the inside were created to keep governmental powers over the nation. Roosevelt administration’s attempts to aid the downtrodden were the least effective with blacks and other racial minorities. The Depression had hit blacks with special force.

Sharecroppers and tenant farmers had seen the price of cotton drop from eighteen to six cents a pound, far below the amount to sustain a family on the land. Zinn’s book cites that in the cities by 1933, over 50 percent of the urban blacks were unemployed. Hard times sharpened racial prejudice and affecting the power the federal government. In Zinn’s book there are accounts of that time that described many ways in which people grouped together to prevent evictions, to win strikes and to give food and clothing to the unemployed.

He argues that the development of the modern labor movement and the New Deal measures had effects similar to those of the legislation of the earlier Progressive period adding that these reforms were concessions by government and businesses, “that didn’t solve the basic problems; for many people they solved nothing. But they helped enough people to create an atmosphere of progress and improvement, to restore some faith in the system” (393). The New Deal barely helped blacks survive the Depression and never tried to confront squarely the racial injustice built into the federal relief programs.

Although the programs served blacks as well as whites, in the South the weekly payments blacks received were much smaller. National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes permitted lower wage scales for blacks, while the Agricultural Adjustment Acts (AAA) led to the eviction of thousands of black tenants and sharecroppers. Black leaders referred to the NRA as standing for “Negro Robbed Again” and dismissed the AAA as “a continuation of the same old raw deal”. Later reform measures didn’t help very much either.

The minimum wage and Social Security were not for those working as farmers or domestic servants. These two classes of workers were over 60 percent of all black workers (392-393). It is difficult to measure the human cost of the Great Depression. The material hardships were bad enough. Men and Women lived in lean-tos made of scrap wood and metal, and families went without meat and fresh vegetables for months, some living on a diet of soup and beans, the psychological burden was even greater: Americans suffered through year after year of grinding poverty with no letup in sight.

The unemployed stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check; veterans sold apples or pencils on street corners. African Americans migration was the largest during that time they left the city for the countryside but found no salvation on the farm. Crops were rotting in the field because prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile; sheriffs fought off angry crowds while banks foreclosed and closed long-overdue mortgages on farms that were once productive. The Blacks who had left the poverty of the rural South for factory jobs in the North were among the first to be laid off.

Mexican-Americans, who had flowed in to replace European immigrants, met with competition from angry citizens who was now willing to stoop to lower class of jobs. The only reason the poor survived was because they knew better than most Americans how to exist in poverty. They stayed in bed to keep warm and avoid unnecessary burning of calories. They patched their shoes and clothing from scraps, heated only the kitchen in their homes and ate food others would reject. Despite this bleak record blacks rallied behind Roosevelt’s leadership.

In 1936 three quarters of blacks supported FDR. This came because of Roosevelt’s appointment of a number of prominent blacks to high-ranking government positions. The most influential factor in the black’s political switch was the color blind policy of Harry Hopkins. He had over one million blacks working for the Workers Progress Administration by 1939 (397). This administration placed many in teaching and artistic positions as well as in construction jobs. This did both contradict and yet helped the conditions of blacks during the 30’s and 40’s.

It gave society a better picture of the social problems blacks had been fighting and by giving them positions in government it was the first steps to equality for blacks. But in reality it only gave a false sense of security and hope during that time. The New Deal only provided assistance to about 40 percent of the nation’s blacks during the Depression and did far less for Mexican-Americans. Engaged primarily in agricultural labor, these people found their wages in California fields dropping from thirty-five cents an hour to fourteen cents an hour by 1933 (392-393).

The pool of migrant labor, which was mainly black, expanded rapidly with dust-bowl conditions in the Great Plains and the problems of the cotton fields in Arizona and the truck farms in California. The Roosevelt administration cut off any further migration from Mexico by barring entry of any immigrant and rounded up and shipped migrants back to Mexico to reduce the welfare rolls. The American Indian did slightly better under the New Deal. Roosevelt appointed a social worker who fought for Indian rights and serve as commissioner of Indian affairs.

Then the Indian Reorganization Act was passed that wanted tribal unity and ending any attempt to transform Indians into farmers. Their handiwork was encouraged and modest gains occurred. But the one third of a million Indians still remained the nation’s most impoverished citizens (398). The legislative record of Roosevelt’s second term can be best described as weak. The New Deal was not extended except for minimum wage and hours that could be worked. The worst of the problems hit in the economic sector.

The slow and steady improvement in the economy suddenly gave way to a sharp recession in the late summer of 1937 (397). The next ten months saw industrial production fall by one third and almost four million workers losing their jobs. It was Roosevelt’s fault because of his attempts to reducing expanding budget deficits; he had cut back sharply on the Workers Progress Administration and other government programs after the re-election. For several months Roosevelt refused to listen to calls form economist to increase government spending.

But FDR’s early attempt to balance the budget had meant two more years of hard times and hurt his reputation as the enemy of the Depression. The least impressive achievement of the New Deal came in the economic level. Whatever credit Roosevelt is given for relieving human suffering in the depths of the Depression must be balanced against his failure to achieve recovery in the 1930’s. The moderate nature of his programs, especially the NRA, led to only slowed and stopped industrial recovery.

More change occurred in American society and the New Deal mainly helped the more vocal and organized groups. Those without effective voices or political clout such as blacks, Mexican-Americans, women, sharecroppers, restaurant, and laundry worker got little help from the New Deal. Roosevelt did little more than Hoover in responding to the long-term needs of the dispossessed.

Works Cited: Zinn, Howard. A Peoples History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Collins. 2003.

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