Let There Be Light? FDR Is In the Dark: 1938 (Part 1)

ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold

Photo: Public domain (meaning you can use it), held at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) addresses the people of Barnesville, Georgia, August 11, 1938. He’s standing at a specially-built podium that allows the President, who is paralyzed from the waist down, to maintain in public the illusion that he can walk. In 1938, people with disabilities are shut away. They are not the President of the United States. Nobody—not the press, not the people on the platform, not the crowd of up to 50,000 people—sees what they plainly see. They agree not to. He is popular beyond measure. Therefore he cannot be disabled. Or wrong. Can he?

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On the Football Field, Barnesville, Georgia, USA AUGUST 11, 1938

It feels like a furnace on the football field at Gordon Military College in Barnesville, even by the standards of August in Middle Georgia. Fifty thousand people are sitting and standing in the scorching sun, in a town with a normal population of 3,500. But they aren’t here for a football game. They’re here to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president of the United States.

Betty Smith, an 11 year old white girl, is here to help. She’s selling bottles of ice-cold Coke for a nickel each, and people are buying them as fast as she can hand them out.

But Betty doesn’t miss a beat. As the President’s open top car passes her, she calls out to him, and, to her absolute joy, he waves back. She won't ever forget this, not even when she's a very old lady.

Hold it. Laing, You’re Taking Us Back to Georgia? Already?!?

If you’re a subscriber to Non-Boring History, you might be wondering: Why am I bringing you back to Georgia so soon after Georgians Light a Candle ? I mean, you enjoyed that, and you know I lived in Georgia a long time, but . . . Is Non-Boring History turning into Non-Boring Georgia History?

No, don't worry. It's not.

This just seems like a good time to turn our time-travel clock to 1938 and pop over to Barnesville, Georgia, where normally nothing happens. Because something very big is about to happen.

And also. Right now, as I write on April 30, 2021, President Joe Biden is on a *train* to Washington DC, and the political news buzz is all about his announcing a return to that time before 1980, back when the federal government was a major part of people’s lives, however you or I might feel about that. If the train and the speech aren’t a shout-out to FDR, I don’t know what is.

Georgians Light a Candle was about Georgia. But it’s also about an event of American national historic importance, even if most Americans haven’t heard of it. That’s how academic historians work, and part of why people think our work is trivial. We write about something small, and show each other why it’s big. We don’t typically involve you, lovely members of the public, or even our undergraduates. We write for each other. And hope it trickles down, which works about as effectively as you might imagine.

So this post may have you at hello by putting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the title. Anything he does in 1938, including, as it turns out, speaking in a small town in Georgia you never heard of, affects the entire United States. Maybe the world.

What FDR does affects Americans emotionally as well as practically. There has never been a more beloved man in the Oval Office, before or since. Two years ago, in 1936, he won a massive 87% of the Georgia vote. In Lamar County, where we are visiting today, that percentage was even higher, 92%. Now, even if we assume that some of the people voting for him were dead, in time-honored Georgia tradition, that’s still a massive landslide,

I won’t lie to you though: This story is set in Georgia, and it’s also about Georgia. Indeed, you're about to read one of the most Georgia stories ever.

A Few Things We Need to Know to Fully Appreciate this Story: Black and White Voters, Democrats and Republicans, 1938

Bear with me here! You will be AMAZED at how relevant this section is. So don’t go anywhere, ok? We’ll be back with Betty in Barnesville before you know it.

Almost all the votes that elected FDR in a landslide in Georgia in 1932 and again in 1936 were cast by white people. Very few Black Southerners in the Thirties can vote, thanks to voter suppression, like an expensive poll tax most Black people (and quite a few white people) cannot afford.

In the South, since before the Civil War, the Democrats are a white party. They are the party of slavery, of Jim Crow, of white supremacy. The handful of Black voters in Georgia are not yet willing to form any political alliance with white Georgians, even those shut out by the poll tax, and you can understand why: It’s hard to work with people who are constantly trying to humiliate you, and sometimes trying to kill you. Fair enough.

So the few Black Southerners who can vote are typically Republicans,just like 2/3rds of Black Northerners, in salute to Lincoln, and in defiance of the Democratic Party. Remember: the last Democratic President was international man of peace and enthusiastic racist Woodrow Wilson.

Among Black Republican voters in Georgia in 1938 is the former Michael King, born in Stockbridge. For the past seven years, he’s been pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He now prefers to be called by the name he adopted in 1934 after an inspiring trip to Germany: Martin Luther King. Senior. He will one day be best known as Daddy King, to distinguish him from his famous son, who, in 1938, is still just a kid.

There is no Republican Party in Georgia in any meaningful sense in 1938. Elections are decided in the Democratic primary election, where party voters select their preferred candidate. That person then gets rubberstamped by the same voters in the general election.

Even in the primary, the tiny number of Black voters are stonewalled: As of 1908, you have to be white to vote in the Georgia primary. So you can cast a Republican protest vote in the general state elections, or just not bother voting at all. But, if you are one of the very few Black citizens able to cast a vote in the South, you can vote in federal (national) elections. And you probably vote Republican. Black voters turned out nationally 2-1 for Herbert Hoover in 1932, despite his mixed record on race and his awful record in the Great Depression, but he appreciates your vote, and he does consult Black leaders.

Ahh, you know where I’m going, right? By 1938, the New Deal has changed everything, right? No.

New Deal programs segregate and discriminate, even on the rare occasions when they’re not supposed to. When FDR signs the Social Security Act in 1935, he brings dignity and peace of mind to millions of Americans. But the Act specifically excludes domestic workers and farmworkers, jobs that are disproportionately staffed by Black people. More than half of Black workers in 1935 don’t qualify for Social Security. It probably wasn’t deliberately aimed at Black people, but it has that effect anyway. Ever wonder what institutionalized racism means? Now you know.

From 1936, if you’re a Black voter, whether in Chicago, New York, or Atlanta you may still be a Republican for every other purpose, including congressional elections, but you increasingly more likely voted for President Roosevelt. 76% of Black Northerners voted for FDR that year. 97% of Black Americans lived in the South, and very, very few could vote.

In the South, then, the Democrats in 1938 are the party of slavery, of Jim Crow, of white supremacy. But not in the North. In the North, the Democratic Party is now the party of FDR.

What happened? A massive 19th century wave of European immigrants to the Northern states, of Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern European Jewish people, that’s what happened. Like any other group, they wanted to get in on politics. They knocked at the doors of the GOP, the Republican Party. The white wealthy members of the Republican Party, who feared and disdained these foreigners, switched the lights off and pretended not to be home.

So where did these new Americans go to get involved? They revived and took over the northern Democratic Party, which had been dead since before the Civil War.

So what we have now, in the Thirties are two very different Democratic Parties. And in the desperate depths of the Great Depression, they vote to elect a wealthy New Yorker to the Presidency in 1932. And even more enthusiastically, in 1936.

See, that wasn’t so hard to understand, was it? Good luck persuading Uncle Bill to listen to this at Thanksgiving!

By 1938, Black Georgians, whether they are voters or whether (more likely, thanks to voter suppression) they are not, are warming to this Democratic President, this rich white fellow from New York. If Black leaders like educator Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Mrs. Roosevelt, can support FDR, this is a good sign. Not that people are completely convinced. The Black Cabinet of FDR’s African-American advisors is so unofficial, it has to meet in Mrs. Bethune’s living room.

Thanks to the influence of Black members of the FDR administration led by Mrs. Bethune, and white liberal members of the administration like Harold Ickes (pronounced Ickies) (who isn’t always as helpful as he should be, but the man means well) access to the New Deal is improving, somewhat, for Black people. President FDR is now someone on whom most Black and white Americans, Black and white Georgians, can agree. That, in and of itself, is little short of à miracle in 1938. But the New Deal? Mixed reviews from Black Georgians.

Not all white supporters of FDR are unreservedly enthusiastic about the New Deal, either. Less than a hundred miles south of Barnesville, lives a white farmer and small-town grocer named James Earl Carter, Sr. One day, like Martin Luther King, Sr, he will be overshadowed by his better-known Jr. He votes for FDR, of course. But he’s a conservative, unlike his unusually outspoken and liberal wife, and he is not entirely happy with the New Deal. Washington bureaucrats tell him and his neighbors to plough under perfectly good crops to push up too-low prices. As his son, President Jimmy Carter, will later recall,

What my father objected to was that the government required farmers to plow up cotton and to kill hogs and to waste the crops in that way. Daddy thought it was an unwarranted intrusion into his own personal farm affairs by the federal government.

The Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia: The Thirties, maybe 1938.

The aroma of pork chops, turnip greens, and Southern cornbread (no sugar is what makes it Southern) floats through the house from the little galley kitchen. Daisy Bonner is making dinner on the fancy electric stove. She had no trouble convincing the President to eat Southern food. It must be a whole lot better than what he ate before. When he’s back in Washington, or New York, Ms. Bonner floats among other white people’s houses for employment, cooking delicious meals for too little money.

FDR looks again at his electric bill for the cottage, his retreat near Warm Springs, which everyone now calls the Little White House. He first came to Warm Springs in 1924, to bathe in the healing waters of the natural springs, hoping for a miracle, to regain the use of his legs. By the time he left, he had bought the resort. He built this little retreat on nearby Pine Mountain, and moved in in 1932.

Not for the first time, he marvels at the absurd figures on his Georgia Power electric bill. He can afford it, of course, that doesn't even cross his mind. But he knows his neighbors can't.

Suppose they could all afford electricity? They could have artificial light in their homes. No more stinking and dangerous kerosene lamps. Perhaps in time, modern electricity, not smoky wood fires, will power the cooking stoves of ordinary rural Georgians . . . ordinary rural Americans. What a relief that would be to women on farms in California, Iowa, Georgia, his own home state of New York, women ground down by the everyday drudgery of their lives.

There are other advantages.

Country people sometimes run battery-powered radios, he knows that. But how many more of them would listen to the radio if they had electricity?

Maybe if rural Georgians could hear the radio, maybe if the world opened up to them, they might start to desire and support more education, more progress, more joy, less hate for their colored neighbors. They might read books in the evenings, using light from electric lamps.

And they could listen to the President’s Fireside Chat broadcasts, and trust him as people did in the cities, from Atlanta to San Francisco, as the fatherly friend who sometimes visits their homes for a pleasant and interesting discussion.

He wants the New Deal to pivot. Putting people back to work was just the first step. Now he wants to improve their lives, so that you don’t need to be a child of wealth and privilege to have a happy life. Art, music, theatre, recreation grounds, good roads . . . on and on, these are all part of the New Deal’s new agenda.

And so is bringing electricity to every American home. This is the beginning of the golden age of the common American man, and stamped all over it is the name of a rich man who, behind the scenes, gets around in a wheelchair: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Trouble is, if we’re reading FDR’s mind in 1938, his New Deal for Americans is in serious danger of fizzling out. Because the Supreme Court is in the way, and the justices keep striking down his programs as unconstitutional. Because a few powerful white Southern leaders are desperately trying to hang onto an identity of self-reliance that doesn’t mesh well with their people’s cheerful acceptance of millions of dollars in federal aid via FDR’s hugely popular New Deal programs. Because these same white Southern Democrat politicians ride his popularity to victory in Congress, only to vote against New Deal programs they don’t like. Politicians like Senator Walter George of Georgia. In fact, he’s the worst: A pleasant fellow, but the biggest thorn in FDR’s side when it comes to the New Deal. Senator Walter George, as it happens, will also be at today’s event on the football field in Barnesville. And he’s in for quite the surprise.

FDR is a “damn Yankee” as white Georgians say. But he’s not. He’s an honorary Georgian. He loves his neighbors in Warm Springs. They love him. He knows them. They know him. He wants and needs their help today, and he knows, with everything he’s about to do for them, the people in Barnesville and Lamar County will back him to the hilt. 92% of them voted for him in 1936, and today should convince the remaining holdouts, that 8% who did not. Even more important, they’re going to help him purge the Democratic Party in Congress of these Democrats in Name Only, these relics getting in the way of the New Deal and a liberal, national Democratic Party. Relics like Senator Walter George.

And so it’s with every confidence that FDR, on August 11, 1938, knots his tie before the mirror, before wheeling himself to the door, where the open-top car and his entourage of aides and Secret Service men are waiting.

The President is completely in the dark.

How Are The Cokes Even Cold?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself is on his way by car along Georgia's dirt roads, from his second home at Warm Springs to little Barnesville, in the middle of (checks map) nowhere. He is bringing something even more amazing than jobs. He is bringing light. Literally. He is on his way to bring electricity to Lamar County, the President himself, in person. People are pouring in from the surrounding countryside to witness this historic event: Electricity is thrilling, and so is the arrival of their President. Both at the same time? This is going to be one of the most memorable days of their lives.

Hang on a minute. It's ok, we have time before the President arrives to talk about something that’s really bothering me. Remember how Little Betty is selling ice-cold Cokes in glass bottles on the football field? How did they manage that without electricity? Ice caves? Generators? Warm Coke is possible. That’s what you sometimes got in England until quite recently . . . But warm Coke on a hot Georgia day? Gross.

No. I vote generator, or maybe brought from a bottling plant that has a generator? I just tried to reach the Coke Archive in Atlanta to ask them, but the link from their Facebook page is dead.

Wait! The bottler contracts with Georgia Power! That's got to be it. Because there IS electricity available to rural Georgia. It’s just that farmers and teachers and everyone wanting to light their own homes can’t afford what Georgia Power is charging outside the big cities, like Atlanta and Columbus. I'm going to try to find out for sure, and will revise this post accordingly.

Sure, electricity is already available to all Georgians, regardless of color or creed… for a hiked-up price in rural areas that only a tiny elite, like the President, can afford. Today, the President is coming to Barnesville to fix that. In person. It’s unbelievable.

Back on the Football Field: Barnesville, GA, August 11, 1938

Grover Worsham is fascinated by the sight of pop-up shops, as we would now call them today, a whole line of tents pitched just off the grass, merchants hawking goods from within their canvas walls. They're selling small appliances for the home, products like toasters, hair curlers, lamps, irons, and of course, radios. At this moment in Barnesville and surrounding Lamar County, these neat toys are completely useless without electricity.

But a miracle is happening today. By the time President Roosevelt leaves town, everyone in Barnesville, and the whole of Lamar County, will be able to plug in their new toys, in the comfort of their own homes, and switch them on, and use them. When President Roosevelt finishes his boring speech, you see, he will press a red button, and, Grover has been told, magic will follow. Grover cannot even imagine it.

Grover, just eight years old, is excited.

Electricity will surge through the newly-installed wires at Grover's house. It will come all the way from Tennessee, where it’s generated by water falling from mountains. It will travel faster than anyone can imagine along wires strung on poles through Georgia. It will arrive in his home along a last few miles of wires put up by federal workers with the help of proud Lamar County farmers, men he knows, working together with each other, and with the federal government. All of this will bring Grover's family into the 20th century.

Grover may not know about this next thing, though. Georgia Power isn’t pleased to have competition. Sometimes the farmers’ wires are mysteriously cut. The farmers fix them. There’s too much riding on this to accept sabotage, give up, and go home to their dark, lamp-lit homes.

Bringing electricity involves unlikely partnerships. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA), one of the many, many programs of FDR’s New Deal in far-off Washington DC, has made this possible. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), another New Deal program, has made this possible. And conservative, church-going white men of Barnesville and Lamar County, almost all committed to the firm belief that Black people are inherently inferior to them, have made this possible.

PHOTO: REA workers stringing wires to electric poles. No known restrictions, held at FDR Presidential Museum and Library.

Hmm. Doesn’t this all sound a bit, I don’t know, socialist to you?

Feeling uncomfortable? I do understand. This Brit lived in rural Georgia a long time. I might say things like this. But you couldn’t possibly comment. I get it. But I have a special message for you, that I hope you won’t mind: You're not alone. It’s OK. Or maybe I overreach? I am not, after all, a Native Georgian. Perhaps you’re already angry at me for even mentioning this. I get that, too.

Betty, the President, and the Crowd

Betty Smith, 11, is still standing at her now-empty soda cooler. She is close enough to the President to hear him speaking through the echoing microphone. She tries to listen to him, although she doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about. The Gordon Military College football field on which she and the crowd are standing, on which the platform on which the president is speaking stands, was transformed in her short lifetime. She remembers how it was a swamp and a steep gully. It was transformed into a wonderful football field by young Georgian men hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), another New Deal program.

The speech is going well. The crowds are in good spirits, and cheering.

But suddenly, the cheers aren't as loud as they were a moment ago. The crowd is more subdued. And then she hears the last thing she could have expected to hear today. Boos. People are booing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That can't be right. Can it? Betty is confused. And so are we.

CONTINUED: Let There Be Light? FDR Is In The Dark: 1938 (Part 2)

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P.S. From Annette:

Look, folks, I don’t know what FDR’s thoughts were, or when he had them. But based on the evidence of what he said and did though, I guess that most or all such things crossed his mind. And after all, spoken words and unspoken actions are all anyone really has to see into anyone else's thoughts. Historians who (unlike me) specialize in FDR, who have read his letters, interviewed people who knew him? They know (or, RIP, knew) better than I. So check out their books, and if you are an academic historian who is an expert on FDR, and I am getting something very wrong, do please let me know. Sometimes, this is the best I can do in the time I have. If historians want to give me a thumbs up, let me know that, too.