What Issue Created Tension Between FDR and Southern Democrats

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By Lucy Hartford

The Tension Between FDR and Southern Democrats: A Clash of Ideologies

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, a significant issue created tension between him and the Southern Democrats. This tension stemmed from their differing views on racial segregation and civil rights. While FDR was a progressive leader who aimed to address social and economic inequalities, the Southern Democrats were staunch defenders of the Jim Crow system and racial segregation.

What Issue Created Tension Between FDR and Southern Democrats

The Historical Context: The Jim Crow Era

To understand the tension between FDR and Southern Democrats, it is crucial to delve into the historical context of the Jim Crow era. Following the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Southern states implemented a series of laws and practices that enforced racial segregation and denied African Americans their civil rights. These laws, collectively known as Jim Crow laws, perpetuated racial discrimination and inequality.

By the time FDR assumed office in 1933, the Jim Crow system was deeply entrenched in the Southern states. African Americans faced systemic racism, including segregation in schools, public facilities, and transportation, as well as voter suppression and economic discrimination. The Southern Democrats, who held significant political power in the region, were determined to maintain this system.

FDR’s New Deal and the Southern Democrats’ Concerns

Upon taking office, FDR implemented his New Deal policies to combat the Great Depression and uplift the American people. The New Deal included various programs and reforms to provide relief, recovery, and reform. However, some of these initiatives raised concerns among the Southern Democrats.

One of the critical concerns for the Southern Democrats was the potential impact of the New Deal on the racial hierarchy they sought to preserve. They feared that the federal government’s intervention in economic and social matters would undermine their control over African Americans and upset the status quo. The New Deal’s emphasis on equality and fairness threatened the Southern Democrats’ grip on power.

Furthermore, FDR’s administration took steps toward addressing racial inequality. For instance, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a New Deal agency, sought to eliminate wage differentials based on race. This move was resisted by the Southern Democrats, who saw it as a threat to their economic and social dominance.

The Role of Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife, played a significant role in advocating for civil rights and challenging the Southern Democrats’ views. She used her position as First Lady to champion racial equality and push for reforms. Eleanor’s activism and outspokenness on civil rights issues often put her at odds with the Southern Democrats.

One notable example of Eleanor’s activism was her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after they denied African American singer Marian Anderson the opportunity to perform at their venue. Eleanor’s resignation sent a powerful message and highlighted her commitment to racial equality.

Eleanor’s actions and influence on FDR undoubtedly added to the tension between him and the Southern Democrats. Her advocacy for civil rights challenged the status quo and forced the issue into the national spotlight.

The Impact of World War II

The tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats intensified during World War II. As the United States fought against the forces of fascism abroad, the contradiction of racial discrimination at home became increasingly apparent.

The war effort required the mobilization of all Americans, regardless of their race. African Americans, who had long been subjected to discrimination and segregation, were called upon to contribute to the war effort. This created a stark contrast between the fight for freedom abroad and the denial of civil rights at home.

FDR recognized the need to address racial inequality and discrimination, not only for moral reasons but also for strategic purposes. He understood that the United States could not effectively fight against racism abroad while tolerating it within its borders.

The Legacy of the Tension

The tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats impacted the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party. While FDR’s presidency laid the groundwork for future civil rights advancements, it also highlighted the deep divisions within the party.

After FDR’s death, his successor, Harry S. Truman, continued to push for civil rights reforms, eventually leading to the desegregation of the armed forces and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. However, it took several more decades for significant progress to be made in dismantling the Jim Crow system.

The tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats serves as a reminder of the challenges faced in addressing systemic racism and the resistance encountered when attempting to bring about change. It also underscores the importance of individuals like Eleanor Roosevelt, who used their platform to advocate for justice and equality.


The tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats was rooted in their differing views on racial segregation and civil rights. FDR’s progressive policies and his wife Eleanor’s activism challenged the Southern Democrats’ grip on power and forced the issue of racial inequality into the national spotlight. The impact of World War II further highlighted the contradiction between fighting against fascism abroad and tolerating discrimination at home. While the tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats created significant challenges, it paved the way for future civil rights advancements. It highlighted the importance of individuals advocating for justice and equality.

As we reflect on this historical period, it is crucial to recognize the progress made in the fight against racial discrimination while acknowledging that there is still work to be done. The tension between FDR and the Southern Democrats serves as a reminder of the importance of confronting systemic racism and the power of individuals to effect change. Let us continue striving for a more just and equal society.

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