Black Labor

The South's Race-Based Relationship With the New Deal

04.09.13 9:30 PM ET

The South was once the great voting bastion of the New Deal - so long as it remained a New Deal for whites only, that is. In the American Prospect, Richard Yeselson reviews a new history by Ira Katznelson of how the South's racial politics put an end to its support for New Deal economics.

In the New Deal’s early years, Southern members of Congress stuck with their long-held Democratic loyalty and championed the vast sums of federal dollars rushing into their impoverished states. Even the rabidly racist Theodore Bilbo, senator from Mississippi, who proposed as late as 1946 that blacks be resettled in Liberia, voted in 1935 for the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), labor’s so-called Magna Carta.

That was before union growth tripled in little more than a decade—and the political muscle of Southern blacks started to flex. At war’s end, the South found itself faced with the prospect of an interracial movement for economic empowerment. This was symbolized by the CIO’s “Operation Dixie,” begun in 1946 as an ambitious campaign to organize the low-wage, biracial Southern working class. The region’s political and economic elites race- and redbaited the effort, which stands to this day as one of organized labor’s great failures.

Operation Dixie epitomized the fear of white Southern elites that an emergent labor movement could organize workers—including black workers—at the levels of 35 percent or more found in many Northern states. A militant movement, supported by Democratic presidents and a sympathetic National Labor Relations Board, would do more than undermine the region’s exploitative wages. It would augment the embryonic political strength of blacks, already enjoying a boost after the Supreme Court’s 1944 abolition of the South’s whites-only primary election system.