Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race

Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown by Kevin J, McMahon

How are we to explain the beginnings of the collapse of legal segregation in the middle of decades of twentieth century? Previous interpretations, according to Kevin McMahon, have placed too much stress on the idiosyncratic character of justices, the political pressure of activist groups, or the sweep of history in explaining the origins of Brown vs. the Board of Education.  McMahon argues that too little attention has been given to institutions, particularly the “judicial policy” of the president and its ability to reshape the Court. Further more McMahon stresses the important role FDR’s “judicial policy” played in furthering the cause of civil rights and setting the stage for Brown.

Too little scholarly attention to Franklin Roosevelt’s positive civil rights record – towards African-Americans at least. Modern historical and political science scholarship stresses the missed opportunities and the discrimination against African-Americans in many cornerstone New Deal programs. McMahon turns all this on its head. He argues that FDR was as upset as his modern scholarly critics at the racial shortcomings of New Deal reform. Thus he turned to “judicial policy” to remedy legislative failures to work against segregation.

To McMahon the Roosevelt administration was committed to reforming American political institutions in ways that were economically progressive and placed “rights-centered liberalism” at its core. The Democratic Party, with its large racist and conservative southern wing, was an imperfect instrument for this agenda. Thus a large part of Roosevelt’s agenda was reforming the institutions of government to correct these problems. On the level of popular politics and legislative agenda, Roosevelt was mostly a failure. His attempt to purge Southern conservatives from the party in 1938 was an abysmal failure along with the court-packing scheme. Thus Roosevelt turned to “judicial policy” as a long-term lever to reform the Democratic Party and American institutions along “rights-centered liberal” lines.

“Judicial policy” goes beyond simply whom FDR appointed to the Supreme Court but extends to the legal culture the administration promoted and, most importantly, the activities of the Roosevelt Justice Department. These three primary mechanisms of “judicial policy” worked together to lay the groundwork for Brown and the gradual collapse of the legal props for segregation. By appointing liberals to the court, by shaping a legal culture that promoted a culture that was “deferential” to the other political branches, and employing a Justice Department that made clear that the Presidency was committed to supporting the expansion of civil rights, the Roosevelt administration set the pattern that would shape the “judicial policy” of the more celebrated Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

TIE-IN: In the importance of “rights-centered liberalism” to the Roosevelt administration, McMahon lines up well with Brinkley’s The End of Reform. McMahon contrasts strongly with Michael Klarmen’s From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, especially with Klarmen’s stress on backlash, the importance of legislative activity to sustained social change, and more contextual approach.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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