Since the Civil War, the GOP had identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, while the Democratic Party had always been dominated by southern Jim Crow conservatives.This all began to change during the Great Depression.
In 1932, a wave of newly-active voters from among the white American middle class swept the polls. They managed to place liberal Democrats in office at all levels of the government, including the presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first one hundred days in office, led the federal government in a series of unprecedented actions to help Americans survive the economic crisis. His New Deal raised the hopes of millions, and working-class Americans everywhere loved him.
They also loved his wife, Eleanor, who became the first politically active first lady in US history. She connected easily and with no apparent condescension to the poor and to African Americans, who mostly fell into that category. (While about 30 percent of Americans were unemployed during the Depression, among blacks the unemployment rate was around 50 percent.)
While the New Deal focused on economic liberalism, it did not at first include the kind of racial liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt. Early New Deal leaders were mostly northern white intellectuals who had little firsthand experience with the southern white mindset. They believed that race prejudice was a result of economic conditions – African Americans were discriminated against because they were poor – and they naively thought that once the New Deal had lifted blacks out of poverty, race would cease to be an issue.
Eventually, as they saw their economic programs in many states segregated along racial lines, they began to realize that racism was the cause, rather than the effect, of black poverty. Of course, black leaders had been saying this all along, but finally, New Deal liberals began to see it too.
In order for blacks to get civil rights onto the agenda of the Democratic Party, first they had to join that party. This meant leaving the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln and emancipation. For many this was a painful decision; as one man said, Roosevelt might feed him, but Lincoln had freed him. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, blacks in the North and West overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. That shift was to permanently change American politics and the civil rights movement.
In some ways, Republicans brought it on themselves. For a long time, the GOP had been taking black votes for granted. They had largely ignored the subject of black civil rights, figuring that African Americans had no choice but to vote Republican; the only alternative was the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Now suddenly, the triumph of the liberal Democrats gave black voters new motivation to switch parties.
Also, New Deal aid did reach African American families, saving homes and livelihoods. This was a strong influence on winning black support for the Democratic Party.
A third reason black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in the 1930s had to do with the Roosevelts themselves. Largely through Eleanor’s prompting, FDR established an unofficial “Black Cabinet” committee of African American leaders, to advise him on race issues in the New Deal. He actively welcomed African Americans into the Democratic Party and made a special effort to court the black vote in the 1936 election. While his popularity among all Americans virtually assured his reelection, he won a large percentage of the black vote that year. More and more blacks would continue to become Democrats in the following years and decades.
While conservative southern Democrats continued to fight black civil rights to the end, it was the liberal Democrats who would eventually reshape racial law in America.