During President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, an informal network of more than 100 African American government employees formed the Federal Council on Negro Affairs. More popularly known as the "Black Cabinet," they worked to lobby the administration for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. Other U.S. presidents had occasionally called on outside Black leaders for advice on race matters, but parts of the Roosevelt administration had made a concerted effort to hire Black federal employees, and this was the first group to organize an effort from inside the government to attack racial discrimination.
Leaders of Black Cabinet included numerous notable figures, led by educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, the first Black woman to direct a federal program. Harvard-trained economist Robert Weaver, later the first U.S. Black cabinet secretary, began his government career in his 20s as an aide to Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior. Robert Vann, who trained as a lawyer and published the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest-circulation Black newspaper in the country, served as an assistant to FDR’s attorney general. Former National Urban League director Eugene K. Jones worked as a negro affairs advisor to the commerce department. And William Hastie, a Harvard-trained civil rights lawyer, served as the assistant solicitor in the interior department.
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At a time when widespread racial discrimination thwarted the development of a Black professional class, “Roosevelt’s Black cabinet gained unprecedented access to the levels of power,” says Brett Gadsden, a Northwestern University professor of history who is writing a book about the key Black advisors in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. “Their rise marked African Americans’ renewed recognition of the power of the presidency and the federal government in their quest for recognition as citizens…deserving of services just like whites.”
The group, while never formally acknowledged by the president, proved influential in educating other government officials about the unique problems faced by African Americans. That influence helped them win New Deal relief for Black communities hit hard by the Depression. And it gave African Americans an important foothold in the national government. But they struggled to gain FDR’s backing for a broader civil rights agenda. Although he spoke out against lynching, poll taxes and other forms of racial oppression, Roosevelt believed that proposing bills to right those wrongs would politically alienate powerful southern legislators and imperil his top legislative priority: reviving America’s devastated economy.
Mary McLeod Bethune and a New Deal for African Americans
Formed shortly after Roosevelt was first elected in 1932, the Black Cabinet was led by Bethune the founder and president of the Bethune-Cookman University, a Florida-based historically Black college. Appointed director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1935, she led the effort to find employment for Black youth during the Great Depression.
Bethune’s close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave her more access to the Roosevelt White House than most Black leaders. The two women had bonded over their interests in women’s rights and equality for African Americans. Early in FDR’s first term, Eleanor had played a key role in promoting Black advisors to New Deal agencies who would later become members of the Black Cabinet.
During FDR’s first reelection bid in 1936, Bethune campaigned for him in key states with large Black populations and gave him a national radio endorsement. When Roosevelt won reelection over the Republican, Alf Landon, 71 percent of Black voters supported him, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black think tank. “Big Negro Vote Backs F.D.R. as New Deal Sweeps Nation,” read a headline from Harlem’s Amsterdam News.
The 1936 presidential election marked a major shift in party alignment of African Americans from Republican to Democrat. Since African Americans first voted during Reconstruction, they had primarily leaned Republican because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. But that all changed with the ’36 election. Seeking to gain a greater share of the Black vote, Roosevelt, a Democrat, vowed there would be “no forgotten races” in his second administration and that his New Deal agenda, which vowed to help millions of Americans recover from the Great Depression, would include African Americans.
As an invited guest of the Roosevelts at the second inauguration, Bethune would later recall the moment as the realization that “13 million Negroes of America were included in that oath and received great hope for the protection, for the integration, for the participation of my people into the American way of life.”
The ’36 election gave Bethune and the Black Cabinet the ammunition they needed to press the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal reformers with demands for African Americans. Over the next several years, the group lobbied the administration and federal agencies on issues such as an anti-lynching bill, the desegregation of the armed forces and racial discrimination in America’s burgeoning defense industries.
Black Cabinet Achievements
Bethune led the Black Cabinet for support of the anti-lynching bill, but those attempts were stymied by a southern Democratic congressional leaders who never allowed a vote on the bill. However, the Black government insiders did ensure that African Americans received a more equitable share of New Deal benefits. Through the NYA, the Black Cabinet helped create jobs and educational opportunities for thousands of Black youth. They ensured that thousands of Black women and men received the training that enabled them to work in the defense industry during World War II. And while helping reverse segregation in the federal workforce, they brought about the first anti-discrimination clauses in government contracts.
When they couldn’t sway FDR’s legislative agenda, they made tactful maneuvers to get concessions from the president. Through the NYA, Bethune helped launch Civilian Pilot Training Programs at six historically Black colleges, including Tuskegee University, where the famous Tuskegee Airmen would graduate their first class of pilots in 1940. As early as 1939, Bethune had been advising FDR that providing training for Black pilots for the air corps would gain “tremendous goodwill” with Black people. In 1941, Eleanor expressed her support with a well-publicized visit to Tuskegee airfield, where she took an hour-long flight with pioneering Black aviator Charles Anderson.
Legacy of the Black Cabinet
Roosevelt never acknowledged the existence of this Black brain trust. “Fundamentally, they were never Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet,” wrote California State University historian Jill Watts, author of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. “They were their own Black Cabinet—self-generated, self-sustaining and self-directed.”
The name Black Cabinet was a creation of the Black press, who were proud to have a group of skilled and professional Black men and women pressing for equal rights from within the government. The group also set a powerful precedent for policy advocacy that would set the stage for the coming civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
“The Black Cabinet wasn’t able to address all the racial inequities embedded in New Deal policy,” said Gadsden. “Still, their efforts to direct federally funded work and relief programs towards African Americans proved essential in the community’s ability to weather the economic crisis.”
After FDR’s death in 1945, many Black Cabinet members went on to distinguished careers in public service. Weaver, one of the most influential, was chosen in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson as the first U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, making him the first Black citizen to hold an executive-level cabinet position. Hastie, who FDR made the first Black federal judge in 1937, became in 1949 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, also a first for an African American.