Many saw Franklin Roosevelt as “one of the most eloquent exponents of States’ rights” while governor of New York and considered a safe alternative to nationalist Republicans who precipitated the Depression. But it was ironic that so many conservative Southern legislators dedicated to preserving their region’s way of life helped Roosevelt enact the greatest reform legislation in the country’s history. This would occur despite the sniping of Huey Long and the dependable opposition from conservatives Carter Glass and Harry Byrd of Virginia, and Josiah Bailey of North Carolina.
America’s Poor Country Cousin
“[Many] traditional Southerners who accepted the New Deal, [did so] possibly because of party loyalties and partly because of economic benefits going to their areas, and some modern young Southerners, like Maury Maverick and Lyndon B. Johnson, both of Texas, who were ready with fire and enthusiasm to espouse the New Deal causes.
Roosevelt knew precisely how to ingratiate himself with these leaders; he did it by providing patronage to their areas and bestowing honors upon them as frequently as possible. Even an old recalcitrant like Glass, full of venom against the New Deal, was mollified considerably by Roosevelt’s assiduous courtship in the form of jollying notes and flattering attention in public.
During those first years, most Southerners – like all Americans – were deeply concerned with how the New Deal was affecting them, and it was this that shaped their attitudes toward Roosevelt. From the outset most of the economic leaders of the South were not pleased.
In many ways they had capitalized upon the separate and unequal role of the South in the national economy. Most of the old disorders against which Southern leaders had so long complained were still plaguing the South: it was discriminated against in freight rates; it lacked a fair share of capital and industry; and it was predominantly agrarian.
Northern corporations drained profits out of the South, and in times of economic distress they sometimes closed their Southern factories first. The Southern economy in both its private and public sectors was the poor country cousin.
Unfortunately, the “country cousin” had tried to support himself by working for lower wages. Both agriculture and industry in the South maintained their existence only through providing the most meager return to farmers and workers. Southern States lured Northern industry to their areas not only by the promise of low wages but also by tax concessions which precipitated an undue share of the cost of government onto people who were already underpaid.
[As a result of FDR’s National Recovery Act which raised wages,] new machinery was installed [in mills] which required twenty fewer employees to operate . . . employers fired workers of marginal usefulness, required the same work output in a shorter number of hours, and engaged in subterfuges (such as kickbacks from salary checks) in order to keep their labor costs from soaring.”
(The Conservative South, Frank Freidel; The South and the Sectional Image: The Sectional Theme Since Reconstruction, Dewey W. Grantham, Jr., editor, Harper & Row, 1967, excerpts pp. 104-110)