If progress for African Americans was difficult to measure during the twenties, the Depression decade posed still greater challenges and obstacles to black advancement. The economic problems that befell the country in the age of Franklin Roosevelt hit African Americans particularly hard. In the words of the noted scholar Harvard Sitkoff, the Depression dealt the black population a "staggering blow," making an already difficult existence harsher than ever. Black unemployment rates were often twice that experienced by white Americans, reaching 50 percent in some northern cities. And lest one forget, there was precious little governmental assistance to be had. Relief in Philadelphia was inadequate to sustain a sufficient diet, and Detroit paid out 15 cents per day per individual before running out of funds altogether.
In response to the nation's dire economic problems, Franklin Roosevelt moved to establish a variety of programs, known as the New Deal, which sought to alleviate the hardships caused by the worst economic depression the country had experienced in some forty years. The Roosevelt administration established myriad agencies and programs, laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Social Security, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Farm Security Administration-these were but a few of the ways the federal government responded to the crisis of the 1930s.
One of the most striking political developments of these years was the movement of African Americans into the Democratic Party. Until the 1930s, when blacks did vote — if they were allowed to do so at all — they supported Republicans, the party of Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves. But with the Republican Party's apparent indifference to the plight of the poor, and with the active efforts of the Roosevelt administration to ease the pain of the Depression, many blacks, having recently arrived in northern cities, began to vote Democratic. In response, northern Democrats attended to the issues black Americans cared about. In time, this would create an uneasy and untenable situation in which northern Democrats would work to curry favor with blacks while southern Democrats would work energetically to maintain Jim Crow.
With the onset of World War II, economic opportunities increased for black Americans as the country's booming factories worked overtime to produce war materials. Even before the United States entered the war in December 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and one of black America's most-revered figures, sought to organize a march on Washington to highlight the persistent inequities in American race relations. A White House meeting with FDR, in which Randolph promised the President thousands of blacks would march, led Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which barred racial discrimination in the government and in defense contract employment, and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Although its effect was limited, the order marked the first time in the twentieth century that the executive branch of the federal government had responded directly to the demands advanced by black leaders.