Roosevelt’s Southern Connection

Was the US president ‘dealing with the devil’ in his relationships with segregationist politicians or was his ‘the art of the possible’?

President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act in the White House, 1935. Harrison is in the white suit © Getty Images.

After a 1937 trip to Mississippi, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the state’s senator Pat Harrison a letter of praise along with the debts he had incurred after losing to him in a game of poker: ‘I bow to your prowess and apologize for the delay, and trust that you have not been pecuniarly inconvenienced.’ Traditional histories portray Roosevelt’s personal relationships with southern segregationists as a utilitarian necessity that Roosevelt made with some regret. Sources like the 1937 letter, however, suggest that Roosevelt’s concessions were also part of a shared leisure culture which many politicians took part in across sectional lines. 

In his 2013 study Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson argued that Roosevelt upheld liberal democracy in the face of fascism, militarism and southern racial conflict through his relationships with foreign dictators and domestic segregationists. Katznelson explained: ‘To promote the common good, Machiavelli claimed, it is necessary to perform ethically dubious acts.’ Katznelson holds that Roosevelt’s connections with southern politicians were, somewhat inevitably, more enduring than those with dictators, but Roosevelt nonetheless saw his negotiations with segregationists as a tragic Faustian arrangement. In response, the historian Robert Westbrook has argued that it is ahistorical to consider Roosevelt’s deals with politicians such as Harrison as tragic: ‘A tragic decision is an occasion for anguish ... But did New Dealers suffer such anguish? Katznelson offers no evidence that they did.’ 

Of Pat Harrison, the socialist firebrand Huey Long, Senator of Louisiana explained: ‘The Senator from Mississippi has another way of standing by his friends ... catch your friend in trouble, stab him in the back and drink his blood.’ In 1924, the labour organiser A. Philip Randolph called Harrison ‘one of the most rabid Negro opponents’. Harrison, who after the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (1913-21) became known as the ‘gadfly of the senate’ for speaking out against subsequent Republican administrations, was to serve the Democratic party for 30 years from 1911 to his death in 1941.  

Later in his career Harrison maintained his segregationist political philosophy while presenting himself publicly as a moderate. After state constitutions disenfranchised most black southerners in the late 19th and early 20th century, southern Democrats were able to maintain substantial percentages in the US Congress and receive important committee appointments based on their seniority. As a result, Harrison became Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. 

Socially, Harrison’s world was little different from the smoke-filled rooms of the Knickerbocker Club, which Roosevelt frequented in New York. Roosevelt regarded himself as a patrician, a beneficent guide to those below him. As he advanced politically, Harrison came to represent planter culture in the South. Although not born into wealth, he supported monied interests and acquired the company and endorsement of elites. To Northern Democrats like Roosevelt, Harrison was both more useful and more relatable than Mississippi demagogues, such as Theodore Bilbo and the ‘Great Commoner’ James K. Vardaman, although the three politicians shared similar segregationist views.

After the initial devastation of the Great Depression and the historic 1932 presidential election, Harrison adapted his political beliefs to work with Roosevelt on the most progressive legislation in the history of American politics, the limited but unprecedented Social Security Act – limited, because it conveniently barred domestic workers and sharecroppers, the majority of whom were black southerners. Southern Democrats such as Long and the Alabama senator Hugo Black questioned the barring of farmers in the legislation, though no legislators opposed the discrimination against domestic workers, as most were southern black women with no publicly recognised union.

Even as many southern Democrats broke with their party and the president in the late 1930s, Harrison wrote that, although he disagreed with Roosevelt at times: ‘I am sure that there are few, if any, in the Legislative branch of the Government who have been more consistently helpful to the President than I.’ Initially, Harrison used the popularity of the president’s liberal reforms to advance politically, but the alliance between Roosevelt and the senator was ultimately strained by disagreements over taxation. Though he eventually refused to sign a 1938 revenue bill that contained numerous corporate tax cuts, Roosevelt had previously sent minor suggestions for revision to Harrison, assuring him that: ‘Business will be helped, not hurt.’ 

Harrison also disapproved of Roosevelt’s support of the abolition of the poll tax and many Democrats’ support of anti-lynching measures. Despite this, Roosevelt remained on friendly terms with him, even in the midst of controversy over the anti-lynching laws, which Harrison claimed would ‘destroy the white civilization of the South’. Roosevelt responded:

Pat – old dear! What is this I hear about your going home ahead of time? Do please don’t! I need you here on lots of things.

Despite their disagreements, Roosevelt and Harrison continued to work together in the face of war in Europe. In their final collaboration, Harrison and Roosevelt successfully pressured Congress to allocate aid to Britain just two months before the senator’s death in 1941. 

For Westbrook, to imbue Roosevelt’s concessions to racial inequality with tragedy is to ‘ennoble’ these compromises without sufficient historical evidence. He argues that, rather than making a ‘deal with the devil’, the president’s letters show him and Harrison on a beach trip, sharing a poker game. 


Ashley Steenson is a history PhD student at the University of Alabama.