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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Roosevelt changes his stance on the poll tax to garner support for other causes

For several decades, the industrialists and boosters in the South had relied on cheap wages to lure factories into the region. During the New Deal, Roosevelt attempts to change that by trying to facilitate unionization, implement a minimum wage, and encourage racial equality. In response, southern senators grew increasingly hostile to his plan, causing the president to ask his wife and the other women on the anti-poll tax committee to tone down their activism.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Ed Smith, Cotton Ed Smith, said, ain't no nigger never worth more than 50¢ a day. And he was having trouble with all the Southerners in the Congress and Senate anyway. And a lot of them you see were the heads of the committees, they were the big shots. So he sent word through his wife. I don't think Farley ever gave us enough attention to come down and see us in the Division; he went ot Roosevelt. Mr. Roosevelt told Mrs. Roosevelt all those women down there to cool it, to lay off the poll tax. Well, we had a real indignation meeting, you know. We really were perfectly indignant about it. Anyway we had this big indignation meeting. So this was in '36. He had just won the election. In the meantime you know, he'd lost the Supreme Court fight, about enlarging the Supreme Court, because they'd also been blocking his measures. So he launched the famous purge; you remember the purge? He decided that he himself would go out-he'd won this tremendous victory-and he would go out and he would try to defeat some of these people who'd been blocking all his programs. I think he defeated O'Connor in New York; I think he got him beat. But he came South, and the first one he attacked was Senator George of Georgia. And he made that famous speech I believe at Millegeville, near Warm Springs, where he had his winter place there. And it was the greatest gathering you could imagine of people. And he said, with Senator George sitting right on the platform, that-you see, Fascism was rising in Europe then, there was Mussolini and the Spanish War was going on then and of course Hitler was rising in Germany. So Roosevelt-it's really one of the greatest speeches of all time- said that fascism and feudalism were very much the same. He said that fascism was rising in Europe and that the South was feudalistic. And really feudalism and fascism were very much the same, which meant that the society was controlled by a very small oligarchy, you know, and people did't have any rights and freedoms and powers. Oh, it was a powerful speech. Well, not only did Mr. George get reelected, but he got reelected by the biggest majority there'd ever been in Georgia because everybody in Georgia got perfectly furious and said that here was the President coming down telling them who to vote for, you know. And he had sent Clark Foreman down there, who was a native Southerner, you see, he'd been working in the Interior Department trying to get Negroes jobs. He sent him down there to kind of look after the campaign. I forget the man who ran against Senator George. He was a governor or something, a New Dealer. But he got beat so bad, and none of Clark's friend would speak to him. And his uncle, who owned the Atlanta Constitution, would never put his name in the paper as Clark Howell Foreman; he always called him Dr. C. H. Foreman. They stayed down there several months. Oh, it was just swamped, I mean, all their old friends, the Piedmont Driving Club and all the poeple he'd grown up with and gone to the University with wouldn't have a thing to do with him. No, he was on the wrong side. And Clark, I wish you could have interviewed him about his experiences there. They were rough; and Marian came from Canada, and she had such exquisite manners. She was so gracious. So they had a rough time of it. Anyway, all the Southerners he tried to beat, Cotton Ed Smith and Senator George, I don't know whether he took on Bilbo then or not- anyway, they all won. They won overwhelmingly. The purge was a total failure as far as the South was concerned. In the meantime the labor unions were having a terrible time. They were being beat up and put in jail and held incommunicato, and Bull Connor would just throw them in jail and hold them there for six or 8 months-they never would see anybody. A lot of them were killed; nobody knows how many were killed. [This is the steelworkers organizing in Birmingham?] Yes, but not only in Alabama; it was all over the South. And this was the time of the textile strikes and when they were having the flying squadrons. And there were machine guns around all the cotton mills. [And how much of this were you hearing at the Women's Democratic Division?] Oh, well, I was hearing a lot of it there, but it was all over you know. This was a great crisis, because Roosevelt had put his prestige on the line to change the South, to try to get rid of this bloc that was defeating him on all of his measures, you see. Then Hugo Black came up with the idea of the wage and labor act, which put a ceiling under wages at 25¢ an hour. Well, that just nearly drove people into spasms because they were paying them 10¢ an hour in the turpintine camps and on the sharecroppers and the day labor particularly in the Black Belt with the Negro, you know, 50¢ a day was the going wage there. You see, it was the resistance of the Old South against all this stuff coming down South, paying people good wages and having unions; the Negro would get big ideas. The whole thing was that after the Civil War the sad thing was that the South attracted industry on the basis of cheap wages. There used to be advertisements in all papers, you know, about the contented . . .low wage, white, contented labor.