The Brain Trust was a small group who came together in 1932 to help Franklin D Roosevelt find ways out of the Great Depression. The group’s legacy was significant as they were closely involved with the New Deal as well as a very famous speech. Ted Harvey explains all.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

Unemployed men outside a Chicago Depression-era soup kitchen.

They were mocked by some in the media, but the three men who were known as the “Brain Trust” were influential in helping Franklin Delano Roosevelt craft the policies that would become the New Deal. Technically it was a short-lived group, existing primarily during FDR’s run for the White House in 1932. While other advisors became lumped in with the “Brain Trust”, there were originally three who made up the group: Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle. All were professors at Columbia University, Moley and Berle in law and Tugwell in economics.

The idea for the Trust was suggested by Samuel Rosenman, speechwriter and legal counsel of Roosevelt, whom he knew through his time on the New York State Assembly and as a Justice on the New York Supreme Court. Rosenman thought it would be beneficial for the candidate to have an academic team of advisers. The idea was supposedly based on the Woodrow Wilson’s “The Inquiry”, a large group of academics who advised President Wilson on peace negotiations following World War I. “The Inquiry” would eventually become the Council on Foreign Relations.

 

The Forgotten Man

The “Brain Trust” came together in 1932 led by Raymond Moley, a strong supporter and close ally of then Governor Roosevelt. The country remained trapped in the Great Depression with no obvious end in sight. Moley brought the Brain Trust together to help Roosevelt craft his message, focusing on how his administration would pull the country out of the worst economic depression the country had or would ever face. In some sense the “Brain Trust” was for show, allowing voters to see Roosevelt had a plan to get out of the Depression, and that he wouldn’t stand idly by to let the country work itself out of the depression.

The group’s influence was evident in Roosevelt’s first major campaign speech, now generally known as the “Forgotten Man” speech. In it Roosevelt laid out his plans for his initial 100 days and how he meant to address the continued Depression. The speech focused on the poor, the “forgotten men” who were not receiving the help they needed. It was Raymond Moley who helped write this speech and include the now-famous “forgotten man.” Moley also wrote much of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. It is also thought that Moley came up with the term “New Deal,” which remains influential to this day. Adolf Berle was also heavily involved with Roosevelt’s speechwriting, helping to write the Commonwealth Club speech, focusing on the importance of government involvement in the economy.

Following the election, the original “Brain Trust” gave way to a more permanent group of advisors. These new Brain-Trusters, people like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes, as advisors and Cabinet Secretaries, continued to push New Deal policies forward. As far as the original three, they each pursued a different path. Adolf Berle left the administration soon after Roosevelt’s inauguration, although he continued to be an informal advisor of the President. Later, from 1938 to 1944 Berle returned to work for the White House as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Raymond Moley became disenchanted with the New Deal policies and with President Roosevelt. He continued writing speeches for the president until 1936, after which he left the White House becoming an ardent critic of the New Deal and liberalism, at least the kind promoted by FDR. Nothing exemplifies Moley’s shift in position than his awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Of the three, only Tugwell transitioned directly from the “Brain Trust” to a role in the administration, becoming Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture. Tugwell would have continued influence as Roosevelt implemented the programs of the New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, the Soil Conservation Service, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Resettlement Administration. He left the administration in 1936 and became vice president of the American Molasses Company. Later he became the first Director of the New York City Planning Commission, where he frequently ran up against the (in)famous Robert Moses. He returned to the Roosevelt administration in 1941 as the last appointed Governor of Puerto Rico.

 

In perspective

Although the “Brain Trust” was a short-lived loose affiliation, the influence the small group had on Roosevelt and New Deal policies was enormous. While the members of the “Brain Trust” were dismissed by many as advocates of big government and elites, they approached the economic problems of their day through the lens of Progressivism. For example, their goal was not to rely solely on the government or to break-up the large corporations when it came to economic policy, but to have the government regulate businesses. These ideas, supported by President Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, became the backbone of the New Deal economic policies and in many regards remain in place today.

 

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References

http://www.epluribusmedia.org/features/2006/200609_FDR_pt3.html

https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/brains-trust.cfm

https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/research/economic-thought/economics/roosevelts-brains-trust/

Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Brands, H.W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The Deep South has a history of racial animosity, but what happened when somebody tried to unite whites and blacks? Well, in Great Depression era Atlanta, Angelo Herndon tried to do just that. And he did so as a committed Communist. Bennett H. Parten returns to the site and explains what happened when the authorities tried to prosecute Herndon under an antiquated law…

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1926 - 1947).   Let me live : the autobiography of Angelo Herndon.   Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-d7dc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (1926 - 1947). Let me live : the autobiography of Angelo Herndon. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-d7dc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Atlanta, Georgia is an anomaly, if not an oxymoron. It’s a commercial and industrial oasis in the middle of an agricultural desert, a regional capitol with an international profile, and an emblem of the Old South with an insatiable appetite for modernity. In the early 1930s, the city’s exceptionality emerged again as it somehow juggled being both a hub for Communist activity and a bastion of conservatism. The city, sadly, could only juggle this thorny coexistence for so long.

Fueled by civic boosterism and an influx of Northern capital, Atlanta experienced a period of rapid growth during the first few decades of the 20th century; however, the dawning of the Great Depression brought the engines churning industrial development to a screeching halt. As a result, unemployment lines swelled, the number of homeless grew, and wages were cut, leaving many to survive off of the city’s limited relief budget.

Enter Angelo Herndon. Born in Ohio, Herndon arrived in Atlanta by way of Kentucky and Alabama. While working for the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company in Birmingham, he was exposed to Communism through various labor organizers drifting through the Deep South. Officially joining the party in 1930, Herndon became an organizer and gained a degree of notoriety in Alabama, prompting a string of arrests and his eventual migration to Atlanta.

 

A volatile city

By the time he arrived in 1932, Atlanta’s relief situation had reached boiling point. The city’s relief budget was exhausted and payments were suspended. A number of citizens pushed the county commissioners to alter the budget so that there was more relief funding, but a number of commissioners believed the level of suffering in the city had been exaggerated, demanding that evidence of such hunger and starvation be proven before altering the budget. In a show of force, Herndon organized and led a “hunger” march on the courthouse in Atlanta that, by the time it was finished, accrued close to 1,000 angry workers demanding a continuation of the relief payments.

Never before had the city seen such a concerted statement on behalf of its working men and women. The march frightened Atlanta’s conservative commercial elite, revealing to them just how volatile and unstable the city had become. What frightened them the most, however, was the social make-up of the marchers. Poor whites as well as poor blacks marched step by step with one another, breaking Jim Crow South’s rigid social hierarchy. Interracial class solidarity on the part of the working men and women would, in the eyes of the business elite, only breed more discontent and challenge the city’s traditional conservative political leadership.

Their response was to simply destroy the movement by attacking where they believed it began: the Communists. Atlanta police began targeting suspected organizers and kept a watchful eye on the post office since the only piece of evidence on the leaflets used to announce the protest was a return address marked P.O. Box 339. Eleven days after the march, on July 11, 1932, Angelo Herndon was arrested while retrieving mail from the box in question.

Herndon was formally charged by an all-white grand jury with “attempting to incite insurrection” under an old statute originally designed to prevent slave insurrections. He received legal counsel from the International Labor Defense, better known as the ILD, whom placed noted Atlanta attorneys Benjamin Davis Jr, the son of a prominent Atlanta newspaper editor and Republican politician, and John Geer at the head of the Herndon case. The two young black lawyers designed a defense that sought to attack the constitutionality of the antiquated insurrection law and Georgia’s judiciary system by calling into question Georgia’s informal practice of excluding African Americans from serving on juries; Herndon’s defense would thus be one that would attempt to strike a major blow to the justice system’s role in preserving Georgia’s Jim Crow laws in addition to exonerating Herndon.

 

The trial

But Georgia’s seasoned justice system would not go down without a fight. As the trial commenced, the defense team set its sights toward the legality of all-white grand juries like the one that indicted Herndon. All of the witnesses testified that there had not been a black participant on a grand jury in recent memory, but in the absence of proof that African Americans had been systematically excluded, Judge Wyatt, whom Davis had said “used the law with respect to Negroes like a butcher wielding a knife to kill a lamb,” would not be moved (Davis 62-63). The legal team left the courtroom after the first day in an air of defeat.

The second day started off much better for the defense. The duo of Greer and Davis, with the help of attorneys A.T. Walden and T.J. Henry, launched an attack on the prospective jurors, getting one to confess to Ku Klux Klan membership. The team eventually landed on twelve jurors deemed suitable. The charge of insurrection was then debated. Atlanta policemen Frank Watson was the first to testify, reading off a list of items found in Herndon’s room. The list included rather harmless materials such as membership and receipt books, but Herndon did possess two books, George Padmore’s The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers and William Montgomery Brown’s Communism and Christianism, that emphasized the Communist Party’s policy of self-determination for the South’s “Black Belt”, a stretch of land in the heart of the Deep South that housed large numbers of African Americans. The prosecutor, accompanied by a large map of Georgia, pointed out to the jury that under this policy a large majority of the state would fall under black political leadership, all but destroying the state’s white political stranglehold. But even with this evidence, Davis’s cross examination of Watson revealed that Watson never actually witnessed Herndon distribute radical literature or give a speech with revolutionary intent; Watson had merely seen Herndon checking his mail.

When Angelo Herndon took the stand, the momentum won with the Watson cross-examination again shifted away from the defense. In the witness stand, Herndon unleashed quite an oration, one more idealistic than inflammatory. He unabashedly emphasized the interracial aims of the party, pointing out the immense levels of suffering of both poor whites and poor blacks. He described the horrid conditions of the Fulton County jail, claiming that he had to share a jail cell with a dead man whom was denied proper medical treatment. His most radical claims, though, were made when he blamed the capitalist regime for race baiting, constantly pitting white versus black as a substitute for the natural animosities between the rich and the poor. Needless to say, Herndon’s own testimony did not do him any favors with the jury.

 

Closing the trial

As for the closing remarks, each of the four attorneys—two defense counselors and two prosecutors—took turns. When it came time, Benjamin Davis, vaunted for his oratory skills, released an emotional critique of the justice Herndon had been served. He charged that Herndon had simply been attempting to better the conditions of Atlanta’s working people in a peaceful way as the march on the courthouse was not violent nor did it cause any harm. According to Davis, Herndon was charged not for inciting insurrection but for being black, and his attempts to unite both races for the common welfare should be lauded. Davis’s remarks drew ire from the whites in the courtroom as well as those in the jury. Whenever he approached the jury box during his summation some of the jurors refused to listen and turned their backs on him. Davis, unfazed, went on. He read from one of the radical pamphlets found in Herndon’s possession that described the lynching and burning of a pregnant black woman. The description was so graphic and Davis’s dramatization so intense, one spectator fainted.

His summation hinged on the inherent irony of supposed “justice” in Georgia: a peaceful interracial Communist protest was condemned as insurrectionary while the justice system turned a blind eye to lynchings and other forms of racial oppression. He concluded his remarks by stating that if a guilty verdict was served, it would be derived only from the “basest passion of race prejudice”, and such a verdict would be “making scraps of paper out of the Bill of Rights” and the Constitutions of both the United States and Georgia (Herndon 351-354). Sadly, such an impassioned plea for justice was rendered fruitless as the white jury found Herndon guilty as charged.

But the battle was not over. Almost immediately, Davis and company submitted their appeal. Over the course of five years, their appeals garnered almost no headway at the national or local level. Finally, in 1937, with his case in the national spotlight—and Let Me Live, Herndon’s newly published autobiography on the bookshelves of civil libertarians and liberal thinkers nationwide—the Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s insurrection stature, arguing that it violated the First Amendment. Herndon was exonerated, and Georgia, a bastion of white conservatism, was forced to release an avowed Communist and radical interracial labor organizer. Jim Crow obviously did not die with Angelo Herndon, but his victory stood as a major blow to conservative Georgia’s ability to deal out so called “justice” in the courtroom.

 

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Bibliography

Davis, Benjamin J. Communist Councilman from Harlem: Autobiographical Notes Written In A Federal Penitentiary. New York: International Publishers, 1991.

Hatfield, Edward A. "Angelo Herndon Case." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 03 December 2013. Web. 30 June 2015.

Herndon, Angelo. Let Me Live. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Martin, Charles H. The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. 

In this article we preview an article in the current edition of History is Now magazine

 

Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.

A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.

 

In 1917, Russia was a very unstable place. Against the backdrop of the extraordinary suffering that World War I was inflicting on the Russian people, major protests against the government soon produced an earth-shattering change. That change was the Russian Revolution, in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks gained power at the expense of the centuries-old Russian monarchy. After the Revolution, the Russian Civil War broke out, and some Western countries actively supported anti-Bolshevik groups.

One of the reasons for this Western intervention in the Russian Civil War was that the West feared the possibilities for social, economic, political and cultural revolutions that the new Russia brought with it; however, such sentiments were mirrored by the Bolsheviks, who thought that the West might be a territory in which they could expand and grow Communism, although such thoughts did not last.  By the end of the Russian Civil War, the hopes that some Bolsheviks harbored about the potential for exporting revolution across Europe were largely extinguished and the ‘revolutionary moment’ in the aftermath of World War I had expired by the end of 1919. Russia, through the medium of the international Communist group known as the Comintern, found America not to have much revolutionary potential at all, despite its revolutionary tradition.

There was one exception though. Through the filter of Marxist-Leninist discourse, America’s black communities appeared to be fertile ground for the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). Their experience of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow seemed to present the party and its leader, Earl Browder, with ideal recruits to the cause. This led to an unsuccessful project to develop an all-black Communist movement in America, and after that failed, an inter-racial party initiative to ‘raise the condition of the blacks’ began in the late 1920s. As we shall see, this initiative, as well as others, produced mixed results. This was no truer than in the place that could claim to be the center of African-American culture at the time, Harlem.

 

Communism in Harlem

The fact that in Harlem, as Mark Naison shows in Harlem Communists during the Depression, the party was largely unsuccessful in flourishing in a majority black neighborhood, would tend to suggest that while the Comintern looked to African-Americans to be their revolutionary vanguard, most African-Americans had at best mixed feelings towards Communism and the Soviet Union. One factor that played a role in reducing the influence of the CPUSA was that it had to compete with pre-existing, exclusively black organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Thurgood Marshall’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Naison’s history of Harlem Communism sees the party pass through several distinct phases; its inception, in the aftermath of World War One (the 1920s), the depression years (1929-34), the Comintern’s attempts at developing a Popular Front (1934-39), and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact/war years (1939-45). In each phase, Naison shows how African-American Harlemites within and outside of the party transposed their interpretations of the USSR and Soviet Communism on to the challenges facing the black community. Looking internationally for solutions to racism and poverty in America was not a new phenomenon. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA had proposed the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa, after a hypothetical armed uprising had taken place to force out white European colonists. Some African-Americans in the South even looked to Japan to be the world leader of non-white people during the 1930s, given the challenge it presented to the British, French, Dutch and Americans in the Asia-Pacific region. The focus on the USSR as a multi-racial state free of segregation or racial persecution was attractive to a broad range of non-Communist Harlemites, although there is little evidence that the core tenets of Soviet Communism penetrated deeply into the black community.

The CPUSA generated great levels of support in Harlem prior to the Popular Front years when it gained a reputation as being an ally against discrimination. It was helped in this as it championed two high profile cases, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys and of Angelo Herndon. The Scottsboro boys were nine African-American teenagers accused of the rape of two white girls in Alabama on flimsy evidence and sentenced to death. The CPUSA persuaded the families to allow the party, not the NAACP, to represent them. Herndon was an African-American labor organizer sentenced to death in Georgia in 1932 under antiquated laws dating back to the pre-Civil War era that equated such activity with slave insurrection and sedition.

These endeavors from the CPUSA did not automatically translate in to more widespread support for the idea of Communism in African-American communities though.

 

Cyril Briggs

Naison describes the experience of Cyril Briggs, a West Indian journalist who had been fired from the Harlem Amsterdam News in 1917 for his anti-war stance. Briggs founded the Crusader, a broadly Nationalist magazine espousing ideas that were: “dedicated to a renaissance of Negro power and culture throughout the world.” Briggs was suspicious of Garvey’s dominant Nationalist movement, the UNIA, and despite a strong affinity with Garvey’s emancipatory views, he began to view him with mistrust by 1919 as the anti-Communist crackdown across America gathered pace and Garvey, dismissing key leftists from the UNIA, seemed to be cooperating. His initial Crusader editorials, according to Naison, were ‘strikingly similar’ to Garvey’s views, combining black liberation and Nationalism with anti-capitalism.

Naison identifies Briggs’ initial interest in the Bolshevik Revolution as being based largely on what he saw as the Soviet Union’s ‘anti-imperialist orientation’, which was consistent with his pan-African emancipatory Nationalism; the Soviet Union might not be able to do much to prevent lynchings in the Southern states or the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, but it could potentially challenge European imperial dominance in Africa and Asia. Unfortunately for Briggs, Lenin’s interest in Africa was minimal. Beyond rhetoric and a small number of African students and revolutionary visitors to Moscow, the USSR was no threat to British, Belgian or French colonies in Africa. Briggs eventually joined the CPUSA in 1920, but his drift to the political left had begun as he moved away from the more accepted Black Nationalist positions of mass repatriation to Africa, and began to argue for a multi-racial, egalitarian America, one that could be achieved through revolution.

 

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