From the early 1960s through the 1970s, Black workers in various economic sectors organized and were inspired by Black Power principles such as community control, self-determination, and racial solidarity. This Black Power unionism utilized an array of strategies and tactics, ranging from direct action and radical class struggle to negotiation and lawsuits, to combat racial discrimination in employment. Black workers in sectors such as construction and auto and steel industries also utilized strikes, shutdowns, and other forms of protest to combat the intransigence of labor unions that failed to address segregation at the workplace, poor treatment of Black workers, and seniority policies that made work more precarious for them. While Black Power unionism enjoyed some successes—albeit often incomplete—their efforts to enact “affirmative action from below” encountered stiff opposition from employers and unions in the context of the economic and political crises of the 1970s. Ultimately, Black Power unionism exposed the limits of post-Jim Crow desegregation policy in US racial capitalism. Black Power unionism was a political movement that was as salient for Black workers as the Black Panther Party. Although its achievements were limited, its influence far outlived the Black Panther Party itself.
Labor and Black Power
America’s Wars on Poverty and the Building of the Welfare State
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.” Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one. The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Stephen Wise and Americanism
Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.
Liberalism from the Fair Deal to the Great Society
In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address set out what he termed an “economic Bill of Rights” that would act as a manifesto of liberal policies after World War Two. Politically, however, the United States was a different place than the country that had faced the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s and ushered in Roosevelt’s New Deal to transform the relationship between government and the people. Key legacies of the New Deal, such as Social Security, remained and were gradually expanded, but opponents of governmental regulation of the economy launched a bitter campaign after the war to roll back labor union rights and dismantle the New Deal state. Liberal heirs to FDR in the 1950s, represented by figures like two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, struggled to rework liberalism to tackle the realities of a more prosperous age. The long shadow of the U.S. Cold War with the Soviet Union also set up new challenges for liberal politicians trying to juggle domestic and international priorities in an era of superpower rivalry and American global dominance. The election of John F. Kennedy as president in November 1960 seemed to represent a narrow victory for Cold War liberalism, and his election coincided with the intensification of the struggle for racial equality in the United States that would do much to shape liberal politics in the 1960s. After his assassination in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson launched his “Great Society,” a commitment to eradicate poverty and to provide greater economic security for Americans through policies such as Medicare. But his administration’s deepening involvement in the Vietnam War and its mixed record on alleviating poverty did much to taint the positive connotations of “liberalism” that had dominated politics during the New Deal era.
San Francisco has a reputation as a liberal city. But history shows that San Francisco’s liberalism must be regarded as evolving, contested, and often internally contradictory. The land that became the city was originally home to the Yelamu people, a small tribe in the Ohlone language group. Spanish missionaries arrived in 1776, but the Spanish empire only had a tenuous hold on the place—it was the furthest outpost of empire. By 1821, when the Mexican government took the land, most of the Native population had perished from disease. Immediately after the Americans took the place, in 1848, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and the world rushed in. The population increased 2,400 percent in one year, and fewer than half of the new residents had been born anywhere in the United States. Well into the 20th century, elite San Franciscans worried that the rest of the country viewed their city as a barbarous place, full of foreign libertines seeking fortune and pleasure. These narratives masked the extent to which San Francisco’s economy was corporatized from the early days of the Gold Rush. They also present an image of racial liberalism that ultimately must be regarded as a myth. However, there is some truth in the view that the city has been a comparatively tolerant place, where various subcultures could thrive. San Francisco’s status as a bohemian place, a wide-open town, has always sat in tension with its role as a headquarters of global, corporate capital.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.
The New Deal
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state. The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy. Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”