"Text and Context in Ohio’s 1938 Senate Campaign: Race, Republican Party Ideology, and Robert A. Taft’s Firestone Memorial Oration"
Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr.
Kent State University
In the spring of 1938, Ohio Republicans were well aware of the erosion of support among the African-American population for the “Party of Lincoln.” Between 1932 and 1936, black voters had transferred their allegiance en masse to the Democratic Party. Although most African Americans had remained with Hoover and the Grand Old Party (GOP) in 1932, a massive electoral “realignment” began with the 1934 mid-term congressional races. The 2.4 million blacks who had migrated to northern cities were no longer willing to accept their lot as second-class citizens. New Deal programs politicized black voters across the nation; numerous measures that augmented black incomes, increased literacy rates and education levels, and engaged citizens in community activities also mobilized African Americans for the Democratic Party. While black political organizing became commonplace in the cities of the industrial North and Midwest, urban blacks in the Upper South likewise registered and voted in increasingly large numbers. For the first time in 1934, a majority of black Americans voted for Democratic candidates.1
Republicans responded with a vigorous effort to win back these voters in 1936. The GOP labeled presidential candidate Alf Landon of Kansas as “a spiritual descendent” of John Brown. In his own efforts to convince black voters, Candidate Landon emphasized his support for civil rights legislation and his aim to reintegrate African Americans into the national economy. Despite the Republican Party’s precedent-setting efforts, however, this electoral realignment could not be halted. The New Deal’s work programs, administered through such popular agencies as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration, employed thousands of young blacks. As historian Paul Moreno has shown, black workers benefited significantly from the racial quotas and “racial proportionalism” that had governed federal employment in New Deal relief and public works agencies since the early 1930s. The Roosevelt administration also initiated numerous educational programs, employed African Americans on those federal projects, and appointed many blacks to federal positions, reversing the old Wilsonian policy of racial exclusion. This “new deal” for blacks, plus the impetus of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s civil rights activism, led to the transformative electoral victory of 1936. According to Gallup Polls, 76 percent of northern blacks voted Democratic in the second Roosevelt election. “In every Northern city but Chicago,” observed Harvard Sitkoff, historian of New Deal-era race relations, “blacks voted at least 60 percent for Roosevelt, and even in the Windy City the President more than doubled his support from Negroes, moving from 23 to 49 percent between 1932 and 1936. No other voting bloc shifted so perceptibly.”2
In Ohio, African Americans began their “insurgency” against the Republican Party in the 1920s, reflecting the increasing autonomy of the state’s urban black communities and the mounting opposition to GOP conservatism on civil rights issues. According to William Giffin, the decade-long move toward independence by black voters culminated with the NAACP-led fight against Republican Roscoe C. McCulloch’s 1930 election bid. The successful election of the Democrat Robert J. Bulkley to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat marked a turning point in the black voter’s relationship with the “Party of Lincoln.” New black leaders who rose to prominence in the Jazz Era without close ties to the prewar white Republican establishment began reassessing party allegiance after that 1930 campaign. The nation’s economic collapse further undermined faith in Republican leadership. Once Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Ohio’s elite black leadership began switching allegiance to benefit from federal patronage. In 1936, two thirds of black voters in both Cincinnati and Cleveland voted Democratic.3
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