The political perils of the battle to strip American history of reality.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has written a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Army asking that the names of two streets in Fort Hamilton Army Base in Brooklyn be removed. The two streets are named in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson. Said the governor in his letter:
Renaming these streets will send a clear message that in New York, we stand against intolerance and racism, whether it be insidious and hidden or obvious and intentional.
Not to be outdone by his fellow Democrat, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property.”
Fair enough. So what about all those New York tributes to Franklin D. Roosevelt dotting both New York City and New York State? FDR being both Cuomo’s predecessor as governor of New York from 1928 to 1932 and, famously, the longest serving president in American history?
With all the perpetual denunciations of the Ku Klux Klan from all sides — yes, including President Trump multiples of multiples of times — alas the historical record reveals that it was no less than New York’s own FDR who had a serious love-affair with the Klan.
It was Roosevelt who infamously appointed fellow progressive Democrat and Alabama Senator Hugo Black to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. Shortly after Black was confirmed and sworn-in, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the story that Black was given a “gold passport,” lifetime membership in the Klan after winning the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 1926, in those days a primary win was a guarantee of election. In his book Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, historian and economist Bruce Bartlett records that the Alabama Klan kept “stenographic records of its meetings” and had recorded the words of the grateful winner in which Black profusely thanked the Klan, saying that “without the support of the members of this organization I would not have been called, even by my enemies, the ‘Junior Senator from Alabama’”
In 1968, historian Bartlett reveals, Justice Black wrote a memo for the record on FDR’s views on the Klan as they pertained to the too-late controversy over Black’s appointment. Wrote the Justice of FDR:
President Roosevelt, when I went up to lunch with him, told me there was no reason for my worrying about my having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He said that some of his best friends and supporters he had in the state of Georgia were strong members of that organization. He never in any way, by word or attitude, indicated any doubt about my having been in the Klan nor did he indicate any criticism of me for having been a member of that organization. The rumors and statements to the contrary are wrong.
While well-buried by today’s liberals, FDR’s ties to and fondness for the Klan should come as no surprise.
An illustration of just how well buried this FDR-Klan tie has been is Sunrise at Campobello, the 1960 Warner Bros. film of FDR’s legendary battle with polio, which he contracted at his family summer retreat “Campobello” in 1921. The film was produced in cooperation with FDR’s widow Eleanor and his family. It takes FDR from the day he contracted polio to his triumphant return to politics at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York’s very own Madison Square Garden. The film portrays the heroic FDR, legs now in heavy iron braces and aided by crutches, dramatically walking to the convention podium to place in nomination for president New York’s then-Governor Al Smith. Holding tight to the podium, FDR is hailed as a hero by the delegates as the film closes.
Left out of the film is that the convention FDR was addressing is known to history as the “Klan Bake” — because hundreds of the delegates were members or — like FDR himself — friends of the Klan. The convention notoriously refused to defeat a platform plank condemning the Klan. In celebration some 10,000 hooded Klansmen held a rally across the river in New Jersey. There is no New York City historical marker present outside today’s Madison Square Garden to mark the spot of this infamous hate fest by the Klan.
So. Governor Cuomo has made it plain that he believes a U.S. Army base in Brooklyn should be stripped of the names of two Confederate Generals. Using his own words that send a clear message that “in New York, we stand against intolerance and racism, whether it be insidious and hidden or obvious and intentional,” one must now ask: When or will the Governor — and the Mayor who has ordered a hunt for all local “symbols of hate” in his city — demand that the name of FDR, a man who literally appointed a member of the Ku Klux Klan to the Supreme Court and boasted to that very Justice that “some of his best friends and supporters” were Klansmen — be stripped from landmark tributes all over New York State?
In Mayor de Blasio’s New York City alone a list of FDR tributes would include the South Beach-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk on Staten Island, the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive in Manhattan, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in the East River. Outside of New York City, where Governor Cuomo also rules, there is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park in Westchester County, and, of course, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in FDR’s home of Hyde Park.
Erasing history is a not simply an ill-advised venture designed to strip Americans of their knowledge of both the good and the bad in their own history, it can quickly prove to be politically perilous. In this case, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have quite unintentionally cast the spotlight on their party’s historic — and hateful — ties to the Klan for political purposes.
The Ku Klux Klan, described by Columbia University historian Eric Foner in his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 as “a military force serving the interests of the Democratic Party,” served FDR as well — not to mention the Klansman FDR placed on the Supreme Court. The latter a position Black would eventually use to lead the Court’s six Roosevelt appointees in validating FDR’s infamous 1942 race-based Executive Order 9066 that launched the internment of Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
The question now?
Will Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio be true to their now-stated positions? Cuomo’s position being that those who in a fashion that was “insidious and hidden or obvious and intentional” allied themselves with “intolerance and racism” and de Blasio’s position that he will take down monuments or tributes whose actions in life made them “symbols of hate”?
Alas, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his love affair with the Ku Klux Klan exactly fits the description of both the Governor and the Mayor.
FDR Drive, New York City (Doug Kerr/Creative Commons)