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Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race

How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown

Many have questioned FDR’s record on race, suggesting that he had the opportunity but not the will to advance the civil rights of African Americans. Kevin J. McMahon challenges this view, arguing instead that Roosevelt’s administration played a crucial role in the Supreme Court’s increasing commitment to racial equality—which culminated in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

McMahon shows how FDR’s attempt to strengthen the presidency and undermine the power of conservative Southern Democrats dovetailed with his efforts to seek racial equality through the federal courts. By appointing a majority of rights-based liberals deferential to presidential power, Roosevelt ensured that the Supreme Court would be receptive to civil rights claims, especially when those claims had the support of the executive branch.

308 pages | 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2004

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Judicial Politics


"An important contribution to legal history."


"Thoughtful and meticulously researched . . . This work makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the political climate and reality of the New Deal era as well as informing our explanations of judicial policy and the rise of the modern civil rights movement."

Law and Politics Book Review

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Day They Drove Old Dixie Down
2. The Incongruities of Reform: Rights-Centered Liberalism and Legal Realism in the Early New Deal Years
3. FDR’s Constitutional Vision and the Defeat of the Court-Packing Plan: The Modern Presidency and the Enemies of Institutional Reform
4. "Approving Legislation for the People, Preserving Liberties—Almost Rewriting Laws": The Politics of Creating the Roosevelt Court
5. A Constitutional Purge: Southern Democracy, Lynch Law, and the Roosevelt Justice Department
6. The Commitment Continues: Truman, Eisenhower, and the Civil Rights Decisions
7. Conclusion: The Road the Court Trod
Works Cited


Presidents and Executive Politics section, American Political Science Association: Richard E. Neustadt Award

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