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In reimagining a key New Deal program, Biden can eliminate its racism

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center on March 31, 2021 in Pittsburgh. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

In January, President Joe Biden announced plans to create a "Civilian Climate Corps Initiative." Last week, the White House announced a $10 billion budget for the program, which is part of the American Jobs Plan. Though details are vague, the plan would put Americans to work in green jobs, conservation and public land restoration.

This plan takes a direct cue from the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work-relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942. The CCC provided employment for 3 million men, planted 3 billion trees and built much of our still-operational National Park infrastructure. At wayside rests and urban trails across the country, you can still find small plaques or patches of concrete stamped with the program's initials.

Struggling and destitute young men served six-month stints in Army-run camps of 200 men, often reenlisting at the end of their terms. Each day the men did eight hours of arduous physical labor: hand-leveling roads and trails, stringing electrical wires, planting small trees (sometimes averaging more than 1,500 each day per enrollee), constructing park buildings, erecting fire lookout towers and fighting the occasional blaze.

The government fed them three meals a day — a godsend for many malnourished men, some of whom grew multiple inches during their enlistments. The vast majority of their monthly stipend went home to their families. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained the dual benefits, his voice crackling into living rooms through the new technology of radio: "[W]e are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress." Roosevelt's administration had the first CCC camps operational within a month of his inauguration.

The CCC received — and deserved — many accolades. It helped move millions out of poverty and create the American middle class — making it an attractive model to follow today.

But the program's immense benefits were not afforded to all Americans equitably. Despite bearing some of the earliest federal anti-discrimination language, the CCC failed to overcome segregation and the heavy hand of racism nationwide, including in the North. Understanding how racist practices — both on and off the books — limited its potential is pivotal to maximizing the benefits of a 21st century CCC.

The CCC helped launched the careers of men like Rudolph Valentino Kirk, who in 1952 became the first Black deputy sheriff in Louisiana at least since Reconstruction. Kirk spent years in Louisiana Company 4405 of the CCC. On his records, Army captains repeatedly noted Kirk's leadership promise.

He was engaged in CCC-sponsored classes and activities, like softball and singing groups. In the CCC, he earned the equivalent of his high school diploma, the pursuit of which he had previously abandoned to pick up the odd manual labor job. Kirk eventually moved into the position of "spiritual adviser," in which he traveled from camp to camp, providing 9,000 enrollees with spiritual guidance and conversation. Kirk's daughter, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, told me in 2020 that this got him noticed by the sheriff, who eventually offered her father the deputy position.

It was dangerous work. While he was on the force, a gunman in a car bearing a Confederate flag ambushed two Black deputies in the nearby town of Bogalusa. Deputy O'Neal Moore was killed, and Deputy David Creed Rogers was wounded. Yet in his 27 years on the force, Kirk never once fired his gun. Outside of work, he was a member of so many benevolent groups — youth programs, the church, the Shriners — that his 1983 obituary read like a directory for those seeking volunteer opportunities.

Having a leadership position in the CCC was foundational in Kirk's storied life. But in the CCC, it was very rare for Black men to be allowed such a role. In fact, it was difficult for many Black men to even enroll.

The Black population of the CCC was strictly fixed at 10%, reflective of the U.S. population at the time. But that failed to account for how centuries of violence and economic disenfranchisement meant the Great Depression hit Black Americans especially hard. Black unemployment was two or three times higher than White unemployment. Black Americans were overrepresented among the men whose low income made them eligible to enlist in the CCC and other New Deal programs. But their acceptance rate didn't reflect that inequity.

Even the 10% quota often remained unmet: By 1934, only about 6% of enrollees were Black. A Black enrollee had to leave the program before another Black man was allowed in. At one point, Black men made up less than 1 in 50 enrollees in Mississippi, despite Black Americans making up more than half of the state's population. It wasn't until the end of the decade — over three-quarters of the program's life span — that Black enrollment inched toward 10%.

The very inclusion of Black enrollees was itself a victory for Rep. Oscar Stanton DePriest (R-Ill.), then the only Black member of Congress. DePriest successfully demanded the inclusion of a clause prohibiting "discrimination because of race, color, creed, or criminal records." It was some of the first explicit federal anti-discrimination language.

But these were the days before Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation was inherently discriminatory. The Army-run CCC was segregated. Kirk's Company 4405 was listed as "4405-C," with the "C" standing for "Colored."

And the experiences of all-Black CCC companies working in the North exposed how the racism that severely limited the potential benefits of the program for Black enrollees went far beyond segregation.

Kirk's company stayed close to home, even doing renovations on the Lake Charles, La., church in which he'd later get married and raise his children. But other companies were deployed to the newly clear-cut forests of Northern states, where reforestation was needed. And when those companies were Black, White residents and political leaders sometimes tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent them from working in their states. Once the companies arrived, White residents held town hall meetings and wrote hateful letters.

When the Missouri-based, all-Black Company 1728 arrived in the small Lake Superior town of Tofte, Minn., nearly 250 miles north of Minneapolis, White residents protested vigorously. CCC leaders tried to appease racist complaints by stripping Black men of almost all leadership and authority. But that failed to quell the racist uprising. Eventually, White backlash forced Company 1728 out of Minnesota.

This wasn't an anomaly: Multiple all-Black companies were forced out of the North. Despite arduous organizing and some initial legal victories by Black activists, even Black enrollees who were born and raised in Northern states were often forcibly relocated to segregated camps in the Jim Crow South.

It didn't have to be this way. Resistance to the CCC's racism was widespread during the program's existence. Throughout the CCC's life span, NAACP and Urban League members and leaders of the Black press advocated for the rights of Black men to enroll and stay enrolled. In 1935, two years into the program, even Roosevelt's secretary of the interior wrote to the CCC director telling him he disagreed with the program's resistance to Black leadership. But the CCC's leaders readily acquiesced to White backlash.

Kirk's story embodies the mutually beneficial possibilities of the CCC. He helped restore natural spaces and build infrastructure in his community, while also providing spiritual counsel to other enrollees. In turn, the CCC set him up to enter the middle class.

But while the CCC's 200,000 Black enrollees made immense contributions to the country's natural environment, strict racial quotas, segregation, forced relocation and intentionally limited leadership opportunities circumscribed their access to the program's benefits. And after enrollment, many coveted jobs in public lands restoration weren't open to Black applicants, or went disproportionately to Whites. That legacy still plays out in the conservation world today.

The CCC and other New Deal programs demonstrated that a combination of new jobs, basic protection for workers and a social safety net can rapidly move massive numbers of people from poverty to economic stability in the wake of economic catastrophe. But they also showed how racism could hamper economic revival and entrench many Black Americans in poverty. Industries that were dominated by Black Americans, such as agriculture and domestic labor, were intentionally excluded from the New Deal's Social Security and labor rights initiatives. Redlining meant most Black Americans couldn't benefit from the New Deal's home loan programs. And the CCC showed that anti-discrimination language alone didn't prevent racism from limiting the program's equitable potential.

Remembering this history is key as Biden calls on New Deal-era strategies to stimulate the economy and promote a more sustainable future. While we may no longer have explicitly segregationist laws on the books, the racism that shaped the CCC and its legacy are very much still prevalent in the United States. Ignoring that reality will undermine the potential of a 21st century CCC. More than just anti-discrimination language, affirmative action plans and an administrative focus may be necessary to ensure that all Americans can participate in and benefit from a new federal corps program — not just equally, but equitably. Such action will boost all Americans by moving more people from poverty while restoring our natural spaces and building community bonds — as happened for Rudolph Kirk and his city of Lake Charles, La.

The author would like to thank historian Barbara Sommer for her research on this subject.

Katie Thornton is an award-winning journalist, public historian, and Fulbright fellow from Minneapolis. Her work has appeared on 99% Invisible, NPR, the BBC, WNYC, National Geographic and others. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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