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The Black Cabinet

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"The Black Cabinet" is the unofficial name for a group of African Americans who were community leaders, scholars, and activists, with strong ties to the African American community. 
The Cabinet member who stood out as a trailblazer was its informal leader and organizer, Mary McLeod Bethune. Interestingly, during the Great Depression, Bethune and other Cabinet members were influential in getting Blacks to move their allegiance from the Republican party to Democratic party. 

One reason for Bethune’s success was her direct access to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thus, Bethune also had the ear of President Roosevelt. From the 1930s to 1940s, the mission of the Black Cabinet was to support policy change and civil rights under the Roosevelt administration. By mid-1935, there were 45 Blacks working in federal executive departments and New Deal agencies.

In this book, Author Jill Watts shares the history of the Black Cabinet’s membership and their good works. We get to meet nearly all of the movers and shakers, and see their rise through the group, and how they impacted Black communities. Watts is an excellent writer and storyteller and the content is well-researched. She pulls from official government documents, interviews and diaries. Due to the “informal” nature of the Cabinets, their meetings and documents were never recorded and/or distributed. It was a secret society of sorts.

"The Black Cabinet was a forum where problems could be discussed, and potential solutions developed. Members often made concrete decisions and carried out assignments . . . such as preparing memorandums for future meetings, presenting ideas to government officials or black leaders, and assembling information for release to the press. It became, as Al Smith described it, ‘a counsel of strategy’ that shared 'confidential inside information; as 'necessary ammunition for fighting the Negroes' cause.'”

I highly recommend this book as it documents a wealth of history and helps us view the country from the lens of Black community leaders and activists. Not unlike today, nine decades later, they pushed forward despite facing discrimination, segregation and systematic oppression.
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I had no idea that there were such powerhouses back in the background that tried to help move Blacks from Slavery to equality sooner than what I was taught in school — that of the 1960s.

I could tell that this book was well researched, it was presented not as a dry history book, but as a well conversational topic that fits the situation of the last few months. It helped me see that we have hidden too much history from our students, we have hushed discussions but don't really still talk about what is important and what is the problem. I hope that this book opens more people's eyes to how hard the Black leaders have worked to reach a day where equality isn't about lighter skin color, but a place we can all reside as the people that we are whether we are black, white, brown, or tan, Everyone wants the American dream, some people have just had to work harder to get even close to reaching it. 

4 stars!

Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Jill Watts for allowing me the opportunity to read this book in lieu of my honest review.
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Thorough historical account but lacking social context
Reviewed in the United States on July 26, 2020
We joined Mocha Girls Read in discussing The Black Cabinet. The group chat followed by the author chat gave value to this gem. Well written and thoroughly researched, this book gives depth to the phenomenal role of Mary McLeod Bethune, Robert C. Weaver,Walter White, and William Henry Hastie in Roosevelt's administration.

 The Black Cabinet should be added to the reading lists of political science classes and woven into reading groups hosted by civil rights advocates.  

Jill Watts presents the nuiances and strategic leadership this cabinet had to maneuver in order to move impactful policy that helped rebuild communities post the Great Depression.There is exception to the importance of this work when we look to find this historical account within the social context of Black life during the New Deal and after. We celebrate the instances where Watts presents the role and work ot the Black Press in this era. 

The Black Cabinet is not historical fiction nor biographical therefore the time commitment to complete the book may extend beyond expectation. But it's worth completing. 


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The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt is an interesting read. I am giving it four stars.
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Well researched and well-presented work on a piece of history that's under taught in both high schools and university history curriculum. As someone with a BA in History that focused on American history, much of this was new to me.

*ARC provided by Netgalley for an honest review.*
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You don't know what you don't know.

This book illuminated a part of American history that I just didn't know. I didn't know about this group of African American men and women who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of black people in America. Mary McLeod Bethune's story should be taught in history classes in school. I learned so much about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and how his "black cabinet" influenced racial justice issues.

This is a powerful read for the America we have today. Jill Watts wrote a book about our history that we all should have known already. She points us back to our history so that we just might be able to move forward a little better than we currently are. 

The publisher made this book available via netgalley. This is my honest review.
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While normally not a huge fan of political history, it took me longer than usual to finish this book, it was a fascinating and illuminating read.
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This book pulls a great thread leading the reader from the formation of the first (short lived) Black Cabinet under Teddy Roosevelt through the second Black Cabinet under FDR. It gives full accounting to their successes, their failures, and their compromises. What it does best is gives agency to the members of the Black Cabinet instead of to FDR (who was largely non-responsive to them). This makes the old, basically taken for granted idea that FDR was able to shift the African American vote from Republican to Democrat on his own and created a Black Cabinet to help him with his ideas and turns it on its head. In reading this book, you understand that African Americans, frustrated with the Republicans decided to take their chances with Democrats and approached them about community outreach to switch the vote. Then, lobbied for government jobs so they could better the lives of African Americans and keep their vote on the Democratic side. To be honest, this story makes a whole lot more sense.

That being said, the book sometimes rolls into too detailed stories that tend to repeat themselves, making it a bit of a slog to get through at times. This would be my only criticism. Other than that, it is, on the whole, a great way to illuminate an important segment of history which has been pretty much overlooked in the mainstream.
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This book tells the story of the African Americans who were part of FDR's administration. I learned so much from reading this book, especially about Mary McLeod Bethune, who was so important and inspirational. Despite all of the facts, dates, and names, the book is very entertaining and easy to read. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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This is an excellent resource on a time in history with an impressive and courageous group of individuals who sought to even the odds in Washington D.C. by representing African Americans on a national level. The tragedy that such a group ever ended proves that we still have a long way to go.
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In 1944 when it had reached its end, one member of the Black Cabinet wrote: “The black cabinet was a spite of what you’ve heard and read, there were a dozen Negro advisers in government who could mold governmental policy in housing, employment, legal, justice, education, health and relief.”

This book was really comprehensive, beginning with an earlier group of advisers in the early 1900s.  It’s primary focus, however, was on an informal group of African Americans hired by New Deal agencies and cabinet departments, including: Robert Vann, Henry Hunt, Eugene Kinckle Jones, Forrester Washington, Lawrence Oxley, William Thompkins, Bill Hastie and Robert Weaver. Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, feminist and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was given extensive coverage. FDR wasn’t really interested in hearing the advice of the Black Cabinet members, but they persisted in trying every possible leverage they could summon. I’ve read several American history books in the last year and I’m a little tired of reading that the roadblock to doing what was right was always the desire to appease Southern voters. ‘Oh no, we can’t [abolish slavery, pass an anti-lynching law, desegregate the Navy, etc.], the South would never allow it.’  “....FDR and the Democrats had dispensed choice White House patronage positions to many white loyalists from below the Mason-Dixon line. This placed Roosevelt behind a solid barrier of white southerners who controlled the Oval Office.”

I found the book interesting and educational, but there was a little too much detail for me. There were so many attempts ( and failures) to make progress, and so much infighting. Nevertheless, I have nothing but respect and gratitude for those men and women who worked so hard for what they believed in. “While these members of the Black Cabinet diverged in backgrounds and approach, all agreed on two key points: they shared a common goal in securing human rights and social justice for African Americans; and they all maintained faith that American democracy and its system of government provided the framework through which that goal could be achieved.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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4.5/5 stars

I approached Jill Watt’s book with a little trepidation. I was intrigued by the concept and the topic because it’s not something I’ve ever heard of. History is not my profession, and I know there’s always more for me to learn. As the publication data approached I grew wary of reading it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning about what was in it; I was just worried about my ability to comprehend what I read. Some of these more academic books can be really difficult to get into and read through. It doesn’t help that I’m a better reader when listening to audiobooks. Lucky for me, May was a tough month, and I was late to reading this. By the time I got to it the book was published. The audiobook was out. So I chose to listen to it. And I’m glad I did because I ended loving the audiobook. What’s more, I also think this would probably make a fantastic book to read physically as well.

The black cabinet first informally started in the age of Theodore Roosevelt, not long after the reconstruction when we begin to see a few black figures begin to get a voice in the federal government. Unfortunately this is also the time of the reconstruction when the federal government was supposed to be keeping the South from implementing things like Jim Crow, basically forcing them to follow the law rather than be resistant as they were prone to do.

Unfortunately, black Americans proved to be more trouble than it was worth, so the Republican party decided to let it go. Any issues to do with black Americans was put to the sideline. Voices were ignored and after Theodore Roosevelt left the office the few people in the black cabinet were removed from the federal government and lost any sway they might have had. A few presidencies passed and we begin to see a few voices pushing back on this idea that the Republican party as the party of African Americans.

African-Americans may have played a part in the election of Woodrow Wilson, but that democratic win was also in part due to a third party candidate. Around the time of FDR we begin to see black Americans really pushing for his election. We see people thinking that this might be the candidate who can represent them and can make things happen.

When he finally is elected, we begin to see a few African Americans again in positions of power. They weren’t a cohesive group of people, nor was it anything formal orchestrated by FDR. These were just a few individuals placed throughout the federal government or in organizations tied to the government. In fact fractions begin to form as certain African Americans push back against each other in the fight for civil rights and equality.

Income Mary Bethune and things change. Where there was a fraction there was now a group of people held together by this amazing woman who was capable of inspiring and leading them into standing together. Across FDR’s several administrations, they would go on to decrease black unemployment and increase funding in black American education. They fought for in the military, but this battle was not completed before FDR’s death in his fourth term.

While by the end of the book we may begin to feel a bit disenfranchised by all the ways in which they failed to get everything they had strove for, Watts still helps us recognize that despite their shortcomings they played an immeasurable part in the move towards civil rights. They set the stage for Kennedy who introduced the civil Rights act. Even before him, FDR’s successor would go on to desegregate the military, something FDR fought against out of fear or apathy. Of course, eventually Johnson would sign into law the civil rights act. Johnson had a had a relationship with Bethune before he took office, and it is impossible to measure the effect that kind of connection may have had on him. Many of the civil rights figures, who you may be more familiar with, were inspired by people like Mary Bethune.

In all of this, FDR is often remembered as being responsible for putting together this group of people to help advise him. However, that is not the case. The reason in which they could not get everything they wanted was because of FDR and his cabinet. FDR may not have played an active role in fighting them, but he stood by and let the rest of his administration do that for him. Either out of a desire to prevent it or a apathy toward African American, he would consistently fail to act. Any of the few actions that may have happened under his presidency were done very much against his will. To him the problems about the Americans were too much of a risk.

In his death he may have been memorialized as this civil rights figure, but it is important to recognize that the progress of his time was not due to him. It was due to this group of people who fought him every step of the way. While his untimely death (well he did get elected four times) may have caused a slight rewriting of history, it’s important to remember that this was because of a group of African Americans who put themselves at risk to fight for equality and they deserve to be remembered. What’s more, I think this book is very relevant today when we think about the existing inequalities whose existence is similarly denied or marked as unavoidable. What’s more, it speaks to the need for representation. When people say why do we need a women of color VP, this is why. They aren’t just overlooked when qualified, their viewpoints are necessary to truly overcome our inequalities.

Now the book itself was fantastic. There were times where I got a bit lost. A part of that is just because it is very detailed, and there are a lot of names we need to remember. Mary Bethune is just a leader here, and there are four or five other important figures who you might want to take note of. I mentioned them in my video review and vlog. Watts begins the book with an introduction where she talks about this basic setup of Bethune guiding the black cabinet and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and how FDR really played no part in the black cabinet. However, I would have liked if she had mentioned the other key figures there too just so that I would have known to keep an eye out for those figures. When we’re talking about so many different individuals in history, it’s easy for these more significant individuals to get lost in the details. Once I identified them I did a better job keeping up, but that was really my only complaint in this book.

However, even with that one complaint I never stopped being thoroughly engaged. I enjoyed reading this. I did not want to stop; I wanted to find out what happened next even if have a general idea of what was to come. I was also just very excited to learn about history and politics. I’m excited to continue learning and to find other resources about the past. I’m interested in learning more about the civil rights movement and the different people who played a role in the past and the intricacies that are often lost in the history books. For that, I applaud Watts.

I adore this book, and I’m so happy that I read it. Any hesitation I had about it being too academic or too difficult to read was wrong. I highly recommend this book if you have any interest in the history of civil rights movement or politics because it is fascinating for all of those reasons.
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Dr. Watts has delivered a well-researched text on the history of race and politics during the FDR era.

This tome is a prerequisite for anybody studying African-American history, as well as those desiring a closer look at an often missing piece of United States history. The Black Cabinet is a comprehensive study on how the answered Bethune’s clarion call to stand against racial prejudices.
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Filled with so much history, much that is never [or seldom] told [I know that I knew very little of what I read], this should be required reading for everyone. It once again tells of how the white supremacy tried to push people of color down and how they rose and rose and rose and even with much adversity, not only survived, but thrived and grew. Led by Mary McLeod Bethune [who seriously did not know what NO meant, especially when it was a NO because of the color of her skin or because she was a woman or both], The Black Cabinet was an important part of America's history and of the time of FDR.  I was constantly flabbergasted by what I was reading - so many things that are continually hid from America - it is important that we know our history, good or bad. FDR, while doing much good for this country, was very slow in helping black America and the problems of housing, jobs and the hideous practice of lynching. And while we cannot discount all the good he DID do for this country, learning about his unwillingness to address the practice of lynching and decrying it as evil and punishable was extremely disheartening.  And really makes the good he DID do look trivial and inconsequential. 

I highly recommend this book and I also recommend the audiobook, read by the incomparable Bahni Turpin. Ms. Turpin makes this book come alive and brings you right into the time and actions that are going on. It is one of the better narrations I have listened to in a long time. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic/Grove Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Jill Watts delivered a well researched and thorough work of nonfiction in The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. The evolution of it's members, the backstory of the Republican and Democratic parties and the vital role The Black Cabinet played in the Presidential elections of that era leading to FDR's tenure and his New Deal.

On more than a dozen occasions, I found myself comparing the political and racial climate of today to that of the 1930s and 1940s. The blantant disregard for black lives until their vote is needed, the publicly racist views of a president and/or his lack of a response to acts of terrorism towards black people speaking volumes to and empowering the racists of the country to freely express their rage without consequence is ever present today. The similarities between 1932 and 2020 do not surprise me. Yet, there's always a voice unafraid to speak for the voiceless. 

As a native of Daytona Beach, Florida, Mary McLeod Bethune and her institution, Bethune Cookman College (University) were engrained in me. I was familiar with her role as an educator and advocate for womens' rights. Her involvement with The Black Cabinet and role as a political influencer has not been given it's just due, until now. Jill Watts beautifully chronicles the successes and failures of The Black Cabinet and how influential this group was in advocating for African Americans while simultaneously battling racism, nepotism and all the other-isms of the day. FDR was a key figure but this story focuses on Mary McLeod Bethune the defacto leader, nurturing and inspiring the other key members of The Black Cabinet: Robert Vann, Bill Hastie, Robert Weaver and Al Smith. Reading about this strong black woman leading this squadron of strong black men during a time when black women were still seen as property to be used and not heard was moving. The bold Black Americans honored in this book is a true gift and a piece of American history that should be told and shared. Black history is AMERICAN history.
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Often history books gloss over the struggles of how major changes were achieved, and the individuals involved in accomplishing those changes. The history of FDR's still-segregated, Depression-wounded America was never simple, although it is often presented as such.

The Black Cabinet, if it is mentioned, is often listed among the progressive accomplishments of the Roosevelts. This book shows the challenges facing Mary McLeod Bethune, Robert C. Weaver, William H. Hastie, and Robert Vann as they battled uphill against FDR's actual cabinet, which was full of white Southerners resistant to change. Rather than presenting them as a collective, the author explores their differing agendas and ideologies. She delves into the bureaucracy of Washington, underscoring how difficult it really is to make change happen. 

This is great reading for the current moment, both in understanding why the current situation is the way it is, and for feeling motivated to connect with the world again.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a digital ARC for the purpose of an unbiased review.
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This is so rich and dense in a history that has been ignored for so long. While it is very easy to get bogged down in all the people Watts references (at times I felt I needed a flow chart of a who's who to remember who was working for what at any give time), that does not mean you should ignore this worthy and important endeavor that reminds us all of how African-Americans have had to struggle for personhood in the US and how very much our narrative of the the history of this country continues to ignore that struggle.
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If you have ever taken an American History course, the topic of the Black Cabinet usually gets a cursory overview. The Black Cabinet is usually described as a group of African American leaders and intellectuals who President Franklin Roosevelt assembled to advise him on issues important to the African American community. That well known description is FALSE. In Jill Watts’ new book, she tells the true story of how the Black Cabinet formed in the FDR years and the successes and failures that the group faced. 

The Black Cabinet is a well-researched book on the history of national African American politics from the early 20th Century through the age of Franklin Roosevelt. Readers will be amazed to learn about the Black Cabinet’s roots and its battles with Presidents of both parties in the first three decades of the 20th Century. However, things began to change during the Depression years and the African American vote which had been reliably Republican since the time of Lincoln was now up for grabs. Lifelong Black Republicans began to flirt with voting for the Democrats and in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt is elected president, with the help of Black votes, promising a New Deal for the American people. However the New Deal was not beneficial to African Americans at the very beginning and throughout FDR’s tenure; progress for African Americans came in fits and starts. The Black Cabinet was influential in pushing and advocating for policies that would help African Americans. Watts’ unveils that the Black Cabinet consisted of over 100 members but had five core influential members: Mary McLeod Bethune, the titular leader of the Cabinet, Robert Weaver, Bill Hastie, Al Smith, and Robert Vann. Many students of African American history may be familiar with Bethune but may not be familiar with her “boys” as they were affectionately called. Watts does a great job covering their lives, their successes and the challenges they faced as Black Cabinet members. All five core members had to fight to be heard and were strong advocates for their causes, all at the risk of losing their jobs, being transferred to other agencies, or being labeled a Communist by Members of Congress. 

Many American historical books put the president as the focal point of the story; however Watts’ book does not do that. FDR is of course an important figure but this book is about the bureaucratic figures behind the scenes that pushed for change. The members of the Black Cabinet were not officially appointed by FDR, neither were they confirmed by the Senate, but these informal leaders and scholars had a major impact on civil rights and economic policies affecting African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. They were also precursors to the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the policies that they advocated for did not come into fruition during their time in the Roosevelt administration but were enacted in the decades to come. Watts’ phenomenal book sheds light on these figures; they need to be known by more people. Students of history and politics will enjoy reading this groundbreaking work. 

Thanks to NetGalley, Grove Press, and Jill Watts for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.
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First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jill Watts, Grove Atlantic, and Grove Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I stumbled upon this book by Jill Watts a while back and thought that it would make the perfect addition to my collection, as I seek to open my mind about all things related to politics and history, particularly those that were not as well-known. As race clashes rise to the surface once again on America, Watts takes the reader back in time to after the dust of the Civil War, and one president in particular who sought to begin offering a degree of racial equality. Watts explores how the freeing of the slaves and those who were oppressed came slowly to American society, so used to having the inequality in place. Watts hints that some of the post-War presidents flirted with the idea of advisors and those who could speak for the black population, though no one really gave much effort until Theodore Roosevelt during his time in the White House. Teddy opened some doors, but things within the Republican Party began to fray for the African American population, as it soon became apparent that Roosevelt was giving only lip service to the needs and desires of the black population. With the Great Depression and the ushering in of a new dawn with Franklin Roosevelt, there seemed to be hope, particularly when the new President Roosevelt wanted advisors within many of the government agencies who were African Americans, shaping the approach of service delivery as well as a different approach to how America might be run. While not a formal inner circle, there was a loose name given to this group, the Black Cabinet. This group would meet and their quasi-leader, Mary McLean Bethune, was a strong advocate, holding FDR and the larger government machine accountable. While the New Deal was being apportioned out, Bethune liaised regularly with FDR (and his wife) and kept up a rigorous speaking tour to rally citizens towards the rights of blacks in this new and adventurous country. This continued and Bethune stumped for FDR’s re-election happily, helping Democrats toss off the image of the party for slavery, as the roles were reversed. Bethune did all she could, using others within the Black Cabinet to help her, giving hope to a population who were so used to being oppressed. Watts shows how new issues were explored through the Black lens and FDR relied on Bethune and her advisors to offer solutions. However, as war rumbled in Europe, the New Deal began to show weakness, though FDR held firm to using Bethune’s power of drumming up support to ensure an unprecedented third term in the White House. With that, the neutrality that FDR pitched was in name only, as funds were shifted around to support a war effort. Bethune sought to capitalize on this, seeking black participation in all aspects of military life and integration as a key part of the entire process. Military officials balked and pushed back as much as they could, though FDR knew he would have to offer something or turn his back on Bethune and the Black Cabinet, sure to alienate the voting base they controlled. Into the 1940s, American sentiments shifted and there was no longer a New Deal sentiment. Watts closes her book out in the early days after FDR’s 1944 presidential victory. With the win, FDR sought to end the war, though his health ended him first. With his passing, so went the push for the Black Cabinet and strong advocacy for black rights. It did return in the form of other leaders, but Watts argues that none had the ear of or the inner connection to the African American population that FDR held. A powerful book and eye opening for those who enjoy this sort of piece. I’d recommended it to fans of US political history, as well as those who find race relations to their liking. 
I won’t profess to being an expert at all on this subject and read it more out of interest. I enjoyed how Watts took the reader through the backstory of post-Civil War America and how it came together effectively to show the sentiments of the new ‘black’ population, those who mattered and were no longer simply chattel. The rise to importance of this race, seeking equality, can be seen in the early part of the book, though things were slow and somewhat stilted as the population (and politicians) sought to come to terms with this new attempted equality. Watts explores the interest FDR took in the movement and how he was kept in the loop repeatedly by those he felt could offer him a new ‘black’ perspective. Watts breaks things up along the FDR presidential elections, showing how important the black voice and vote became as time contained, with Mary McLean Bethune acting as a conduit throughout the process. With chapters that show the advancement (or reversion) of policies as they play into the hands of the black population, Watts shows how things wax and wane at different times. With decent chapter lengths and a great deal of information, the reader can digest the topics with ease, helped along by a chronological narrative that flows with ease. Watts develops her strong points throughout and shows that FDR was a harbinger for better race relations in the United States, though there was surely much that needed to be done. However, he took the black voice seriously, not pretending to speak for them, but using some of their own to speak to him. Brilliantly penned and something I will return to read again, of that I am sure.

Kudos, Madam Watts, for shedding such a needed light on the topic at hand. I learned so very much from this book and cannot wait to try more of your work.
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The author gives an excellent view of the struggles of the black community during FDR’s administration to improve their lot. As this group of activists tried to end segregation in federal jobs, the military, and federal contractors. 
It does not put the FDR administration in a very good light. 
The Black Cabinet is an excellent read and should be read by every American.
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