By the time of the Great Depression, black loyalty to the Republican Party had been tested for some time. The Republican Party had abandoned consistent efforts for civil rights after the failure of the Lodge Federal Elections Bill in 1890, they had failed to pass an anti-lynching bill in 1922 despite President Harding and its Congressional leaders voicing support. Worse yet, President Hoover had broken a promise to Dr. Robert Moton, Booker T. Washington’s successor as head of the Tuskegee Institute, to grant blacks an unprecedented role in government after Moton agreed to help Hoover cover up abuses of blacks by local whites during the 1927 Mississippi River Flood recovery. Dr. Moton opted to endorse Roosevelt in 1932, and his New Deal was proving popular for many blacks. The first major sign that he was appealing to blacks was the 1934 midterm election, specifically in Illinois’s 1st District, a Chicago-based district which was and remains majority black. The incumbent is Oscar De Priest, a Republican who has voted against New Deal programs and condemned the New Deal as socialist. However, Arthur Wergs Mitchell (1883-1968), does not do the same, instead switching to the Democratic Party and campaigning in support of the New Deal. He had formerly headed the Chicago turnout campaign for Herbert Hoover in 1928. Although he narrowly loses the Democratic primary to Harry Baker, a white man, he dies before the election and Mitchell gets picked to fill in. Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly is of able assistance as he campaigns heavily for the black vote. Before I discuss Mitchell’s political career further, I feel his background is worth some coverage.
A Shady Past
Before moving North, Arthur W. Mitchell had engaged in agricultural education pursuits in Alabama. He founded a number of agricultural schools which were more oriented to getting free labor from students than educating them in superior farming practices. Mitchell also exaggerated his ties to Booker T. Washington (he had attended Tuskegee for one year) and outright lied about attending Talladega College. In 1908, he founded with the white owner of Fair Oaks Plantation the African American Building Loan and Real Estate Company and the West Alabama Normal and Industrial Institute. This school was a scheme to get cheap black labor to work in farms and woodlots, with only some rudimentary skills being learned by the children of the laborers at these schools (Nordin). The parents had hoped that their children would be learning skills that would enable them to have better futures. Mitchell would make appearances at Northern philanthropic institutions and send mailers to raise money for this scheme, thus taking away funds that would otherwise go to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Although Washington initially campaigned against Mitchell’s activities, Mitchell managed to bribe a Tuskegee telegraph operator to intercept personally damaging communication and blackmailed Washington into backing down (Nordin). After the work was done at the plantation, the school’s main building mysteriously burned down.
Mitchell again engaged in this scheme at another plantation near Geiger, Alabama. Once again in 1915, a mysterious fire destroyed the school. Mitchell then served in an administrative role with the Armstrong Agricultural Institute. By 1919, however, pending lawsuits and allegations were mounting against him that he had defrauded poor blacks out of land, and he fled with his family to Washington D.C. While there, Mitchell uses illegally obtained money to buy apartments and study law (Nordin). He also sells real estate, and he is aided in these endeavors by Congressman John McDuffie (D-Ala.), a man he had befriended in his days in Alabama as he was one of the backers of one of his schools.
A Democratic Establishment Man
Ideologically, Mitchell is on the liberal end of course given his support of the New Deal, but he is more moderate than his successors will be. This district doesn’t go solidly Democratic overnight, as he wins reelection repeatedly by less than 10 points. In 1938, Mitchell’s opponent is black Republican William L. Dawson, who had worked in the Chicago Republican machine under De Priest. While in Congress, Mitchell, like De Priest, is accused of insufficient advocacy for civil rights by civil rights groups. He kowtows to what the Democratic machine in Chicago wants, distances himself from civil rights groups, does not attempt to aid black constituents from Southern districts who write him, and largely avoids issues that would cause offense to Southern whites. Rather, he is pushing measures to honor certain black figures that wouldn’t rock the boat. Indeed, biographer Dennis Nordin wrote of him that he was a “masterful flatterer of whites. . . . Whenever individual Democrats had done anything of importance . . . Mitchell was likely to offer them his help. . . . His letters, however, compromised African American respectability . . . [but suggested] that he might be personally useful if a need should arise to manage and control troublesome African Americans” (Pinderhughes). Mitchell also pushed a Southern-friendly myth that blacks in the South were better off than blacks in the North. In 1937, he strongly backs Roosevelt’s “court packing plan”, charging that the court had perverted the meaning of the 14th Amendment to defend corporations rather than blacks. That year, he sponsored an anti-lynching bill that was weaker than the Gavagan-Wagner proposal backed by the NAACP and there are murmurs of this bill getting support from a significant number of Southerners, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatton W. Sumners of Texas. Although Sumners and a few other Southerners vote for it, many Southerners opt to vote against anyway and many supporters of Gavagan-Wagner vote against the measure as too weak. Mitchell then backs the Gavagan-Wagner Bill, which passes the House but dies in the Senate.
Discrimination Lawsuit and Independence
In 1937, Mitchell boarded a train to take a vacation in Arkansas, and although he had paid a first-class ticket, by the time the train gets into Arkansas he is moved to a blacks only car by the conductor, which is in poor condition. Although the railroad offers to refund him the difference, Mitchell declines and files suit for discrimination in interstate travel. His case against the Illinois Central, Pullman, and Rock Island railroad companies takes four years to make its way up to the Supreme Court, and the court rules unanimously in his favor that under “separate but equal”, passengers traveling interstate regardless of their race must get first class accommodations if they paid for them. Although a small legal victory, it is a victory, nonetheless. He also during World War II spoke out against defense contractors who discriminated against blacks. Mitchell also demonstrates his independence in voting in his final term in Congress, which includes being one of two Cook County Democrats to support the Vinson Anti-Strike Bill, an unprecedented bucking of organized labor on his part.
Ironically, Mitchell’s greatest accomplishment results in his political downfall. Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly and his machine don’t appreciate that he was exercising independence in advocacy for blacks, especially that which impacted Chicago-based rail companies, and he learned that the machine would be backing William L. Dawson, his 1938 opponent who had since become a Democrat, instead. Mitchell figured he wouldn’t win this fight and decided not to run again. Dawson would win the 1942 midterm election and be much more of a loyalist for liberalism than Mitchell, and the 1946 election would be the last time in which a Republican would come within single digits of defeating a Democrat in the 1st district. Like Mitchell, Dawson would also kowtow to the Chicago Democratic machine and remained in office until his death in 1970. Mitchell would afterwards assume the role of elder statesman and gave his support to Democratic presidential candidates.
Hill, R. Mitchell v. United States, et. al. The Knoxville Focus.
Mitchell, Arthur Wergs. United States House of Representatives.
Nordin, D.S. Arthur Wergs Mitchell. Encyclopedia of Alabama.
Pinderhughes, D.M. (1998, Fall). The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. Political Science Quarterly, 113 (3)