British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965 by Eric Schickler

Schickler, Eric. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. Pp. xii + 359. Oxford: Princeton UP, 2016. £24.95.


The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is often considered the pinnacle of the nonviolent civil rights movement, a moment when cooperation between African Americans and white liberals created the momentum for Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It also demonstrated the involvement of labor unions in the civil rights coalition, with the march having been organized by the recently elected vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), A. Philip Randolph.

Perhaps less well-known is Randolph’s proposed march on Washington two decades prior. In the May 1941 issue of The Black Worker, Randolph announced a march on the US capital that would be both lawful and aggressive. Intended to persuade Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order ending discrimination in government and national defense jobs, the piece highlighted the importance of union representation for African American workers: ‘Some employers refuse to give Negroes jobs when they are without “union cards”, and some unions refuse Negro workers union cards when they are “without jobs”. What shall we do? What a dilemma! What a runaround! What a disgrace! What a blow below the belt!’ [1]. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 mandating ‘full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination’, and, having achieved its aim, the 1941 march was called off [2].

While these prominent moments in civil rights history display the crucial coalition between African American civil rights activists, the Democratic Party, and labor unions, Eric Schickler’s Racial Realignment makes the case that this coalition was forged much earlier than conventional wisdom would have us believe. Over the course of eleven chapters and dozens of graphs and tables, Schickler draws upon several major data collection efforts in reassessing the incorporation of civil rights into the definition of American liberalism. Rather than a top-down recalibration of party values primarily undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, Schickler demonstrates how ‘African Americans and their allies in the CIO had done much of the work in bringing together New Deal liberalism and racial liberalism in the late 1930s and 1940s’ (8), forcing civil rights onto the Democratic agenda.

Beginning his history with Roosevelt’s election in 1932, Schickler argues that civil rights was, put simply, ‘not part of the programmatic liberal vision in the early 1930s’ (27). With African American voters generally loyal to the party of Lincoln, and with Roosevelt attempting to appease both the organized labor movements of the South and West (who were generally resistant to civil rights) and conservative northeastern business interests, it took the creation of the CIO in 1935 to bring African Americans into the coalition and redefine New Deal liberalism. Schickler’s first four chapters cover how this redefinition ‘sharpened what it meant to be a New Dealer’ (72), with the rise of the CIO playing ‘a crucial role in forcing African American concerns into the mainstream liberal Democratic program’ (80).

In the following chapters Schickler looks in turn at the attitudes of the mass public, African American activists, northern Democratic state platforms, and the rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives. It is here that Schickler most convincingly demonstrates his command of the data, drawing on a vast survey of polls, congressional votes, and media publications. The final chapters assess how this change in the party from below influenced the leadership, cementing the newly defined divisions between Democratic and Republican policy: ‘national leaders had very limited room to maneuver given civil rights supporters’ takeover of much of the party apparatus below them. … [T]hese men, important figures though they surely were, acceded to forces that had long been at work within their party’ (212).

To conscientious readers of history, it will likely come as no real surprise that the civil rights successes of the 1950s and 1960s resulted from decades of committed activism rather than from the actions of a handful of prominent leaders. The meticulous examination of the racial realignment within the Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s, however, makes Schickler’s book a powerful, original, and detailed reassessment. Building upon recent work in the field, Schickler redresses a number of prevalent myths which have grown up around the origins of the civil rights movement.

More than this, however, the book has implications for our understanding of American politics and racial divisions subsequent to 1965, outlining the roots of splits within the Democratic Party over later civil rights issues as well as the origins of the present-day partisan divide in the US. A convincing and authoritative history, Schickler’s Racial Realignment is a book with implications for the history of civil rights, labor unions, and political partisanship, and offers political scientists an alternative framework for understanding the nuanced causes and manifestations of broad policy change across political parties.

[1] A. Philip Randolph, “The Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense”, The Black Worker 14 (May 1941) http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch30_02.htm
[2] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Executive Order 8802 – Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry” http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od8802t.html

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