(January 9, 2017) From the first of his 212 YouTube Civil War lectures Dr. Eric Foner emphasizes:
The opinions of historians…[have] a practical impact on our lives…An earlier view of Reconstruction…was used to justify the exclusion of black people in the South from political rights.
He provides one example in his 207th lecture segment when endorsing an accusation that “racist” white Southern congressmen deliberately excluded blacks from benefits when Old Age Social Security was formed in 1935. “How do they do that?” the professor asks. “They eliminate the largest areas of black employment: agricultural laborers and domestic workers…representing 80% of black workers.”
Even allowing for Foner’s habitual anti-Southern spin, the accusation is a bridge too far.
First, three-quarters of the 20 million workers excluded from Social Security in 1935 were whites.
Second, agricultural and domestic workers (household servants) were excluded because the Internal Revenue Service doubted that it could enforce the required payroll tax in those sectors. Many such workers were—and preferred to be—paid in cash. The IRS worried that poor tax compliance in such large sectors might trigger widespread non-compliance elsewhere.
Third, an administrative committee of President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet—not Congress—designed the Social Security bill. Although the committee originally recommended that agricultural and domestic workers be included, Connecticut resident and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. cited the IRS objections and advised against their inclusion when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Fourth, Southerners did not control the two pertinent congressional committees. They represented only 6 of 21 Finance Committee members in the Senate. Similarly, they accounted for only 4 of 18 Way and Means Committee members in the House. Both committees approved Social Security and the applicable exclusions with almost no dissent.
Fifth, even though Jim Crow still predominated in the South fifteen years after the 1935 Act, agricultural and domestic workers were brought into the program in 1950.
Sixth, initially after the 1935 bill was passed many—perhaps most—workers and employers wanted to be excluded. Almost all of the early lawsuits, protests, and disputes were attempts to gain exclusion.
As late as 1955, The Wall Street Journal reported that few domestic workers and their employers wanted to comply. A St. Louis housewife said, “I’m not going to pay it until someone yells.” As late as 1993 Connecticut lawyer and visiting Yale scholar Zoe Baird failed to win appointment as President Clinton’s first Attorney General because she did not pay the tax for her domestic servant.
Seventh, Foner exaggerates a little when claiming that 80% of blacks were excluded from the 1935 Act. The fraction was actually 65%, which was slightly below 66% exclusion ratio of other non-whites.
In sum, Dr. Foner’s habitual one-sided interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction underscore the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail” as well as the corollary, “The protruding nail gets pounded down.”
Source: Larry Dewitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act