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FDR and the Depression
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Depression Era Documentary Photography Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

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Dorothea Lange

To penetrate the consciousness of Americans even further, Roosevelt and a brigade of bright young artists and historians recorded the crisis of the day for posterity. The Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration, one of the New Deal programs created to help American farmers, became a locus for this effort. It was home to dozens of brilliant photographers, perhaps none more brilliant than Dorothea Lange.

Lange had taken up photography as a high school girl in New Jersey. She had a hard childhood, her father had deserted her family and a bout of polio had left her slightly lame. Tenacious and sensitive, Lange was a true artist. Her "Migrant Mother," shot in 1936 in a squalid migrant camp in Nipoma, California, is a heart wrenching image.

[picture of Lange's 'Migrant Mother']

Lange recalled the moment in which she made the photograph. "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet. She told me she was thirty-two. They had been living on frozen vegetables and birds that the children had killed. She had just sold the tires from the car to buy food."

Lange took five exposures. She selected this one to be printed. It's a classic American image; one, however, more familiar to us today than it was to Americans in the 1930s.

Many newspapers and magazines refused to print photographs generated under New Deal programs. Their reasons weren't entirely surprising. Publishers felt that government funded photographers took work from those paid, usually underpaid, on their staff. And they weren't inclined to provide a forum for what they thought was propaganda for New Deal programs.

[picture of a New Deal project]

Roosevelt's New Deal programs predictably came under attack from many quarters. In response to the charge that New Deal programs were "boondoggles", government make-work projects to keep the idle busy, FDR proclaimed in 1936, "If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of American people for years to come." By the end of 1934, more than twenty million Americans, one out of every six citizens, were receiving some form of public assistance.

The WPA, the AAA, and the CCC

In 1935, Congress voted the then-staggering sum of some five billion dollars for work relief, most of which went into public projects such as the construction of new airports, hospitals and schools under the Works Progress Administration. Part of the WPA's mandate was to put the expertise of unemployed white-collar workers to work as well; another was to support the nation's arts by hiring its starving artists. The government did this by creating Federal Art, Music, and Writers' Projects as well as a Federal Theatre, all under the WPA. These agencies put thousands of creative Americans to work, painting public murals, composing and performing new music, and writing everything from new plays to the still-treasured WPA travel guides to every state.

For America's farmers, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the AAA, established during Roosevelt's vigorous first hundred days in office, rescued even more farms by paying farmers not to produce crops beyond certain quotas. Given how many Americans were going hungry at the time, these quotas sparked an angry response from the public. But the AAA worked. Three years after its creation, America's farmers were better off than before by half.

Among the more dramatic New Deal measures was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, which was designed to put jobless young men to work in the national forests and on federal conservation and road construction projects. The resulting CCC work camps were run by the U.S. Army, which imposed strict discipline on the corps' recruits: single men between the ages of 18 and 25 who were healthy, unemployed, and without financial resources. "CCC boys," as they were called, received thirty dollars a month in addition to room, board, and health care, which in most cases left the boys as much as twenty-five dollars to send home to their impoverished families every month.

Armed with pickaxes, shovels, saws and their own muscles, the CCC boys sowed grass, planted trees, fought forest fires, cut hiking trails, and built everything from bridges to public swimming pools. At its zenith in September 1935, the CCC employed half a million men in 2,514 work camps. In the nine years it existed, the CCC helped 2.9 million youngsters learn about conservation as well as the skills to practice it.

Eleanor Roosevelt

[picture of Eleanor Roosevelt]

The New Deal itself could not have been engineered without the concerted efforts of the President's enthusiastic cadre of handpicked advisers. For Franklin Roosevelt was by no means alone in his effort to lead 1930s America out of its Great Depression. In fact, he wasn't even the only Roosevelt hard at the task: his wife (and distant cousin) Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, was right alongside to serve as the nation's beacon of compassion. As First Lady, her caring insights and dedication to the plight of the poor helped put a human face on the New Deal bureaucracy.

What's more, she was a civil rights warrior from the start. When the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the great African American contralto Marian Anderson from singing at their Constitution Hall in Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt instantly quit the organization. A few months later she drove her point home by sponsoring Anderson's Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which drew a crowd a hundred thousand strong, and became a landmark of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Anderson: "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. Of thee we sing."

Rexford Tugwell, one of FDR's best and brightest New Dealers, recalled numerous occasions on which Eleanor Roosevelt changed U.S. government policy simply by saying, "Franklin, surely you will not." As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has noted, Franklin Roosevelt thought in terms of what could be done; Eleanor Roosevelt focused on what should be done. Sadly, some were suspect of her liberal views; others mocked her piety and her protruding teeth. But no amount of name-calling broke her open-hearted and open-minded spirit.

All too many have written Eleanor Roosevelt off as just another well-intentioned society idealist doomed to frustration by reality. In fact, she was an utter pragmatist, one who understood and refused to shy from stark truths. One of those truths was that the Great Depression hit America's black population the hardest.

The depression forced legions of African Americans to migrate from impoverished rural areas in the South to the cities of the North. As poet Langston Hughes described it, "Everybody in America was looking for work, everybody was moving from one place to another in search of a job." The vast majority of these displaced blacks failed to find employment in the so-called Promised Land; worse, they faced racism for trying to "take" scarce jobs "away from Northern whites."

This new racial hatred had boiled over in 1931 in the controversial Scottsboro case, in which nine young black men were convicted on questionable evidence of having raped two white women on a freight train in Alabama. Eight of the nine received the death sentence. The Scottsboro case turned a spotlight on the horror of American racism. In 1937, after six years of appeals and other legal maneuvers, five of the defendants were retried and again found guilty, although the charges against the remaining four were dismissed. In the end, none of the Scottsboro defendants was executed.



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