“…hard times makes peculiar bedfellows sometimes…”

This lesson may be conducted as a follow up to students examining why and how official government policies (such as legal segregation in the CCC) led to different experiences of the New Deal for Whites and African Americans. Or it may be taught as a stand-alone lesson on race relations during the Great Depression.

In this lesson, students will focus on interactions between “ordinary” Americans seeking to improve their economic circumstances: Did new initiatives (such as the WPA) foster competition or cooperation between the races? Did similar circumstances lead to a sense of solidarity or reinforce notions of “us vs. them”?

Historical Background

The Great Depression’s devastating effects on the South exacerbated the region’s existing endemic poverty. Both whites and blacks were represented among Southerners long acquainted with deprivation as well as those newly indigent. To meet the special difficulties of the region, FDR’s New Deal included geographically-targeted programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority. The millions of Southerners who received financial aid throughout the era included blacks and whites. However, the nature of Southern race relations meant that African Americans in the region faced unique challenges when seeking relief via local level, state, and federal programs.

For example, Southern blacks found that sometimes their access to relief programs was blocked. At times, this was the result of unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning programs. In other circumstances, it stemmed from overt racial discrimination on the part of relief workers. Primary source materials reveal that concern over race relations –particularly the traditional racial “etiquette” reinforced by Jim Crow-- was frequently invoked in Southern demands for relief. However, other Southerners saw amid the economic struggle an opportunity to build coalitions across racial lines. The benefits were not only perceived by African Americans. J.R. Butler, the white President of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, Memphis, Tennessee, noted “The whites were niggers, too. There was no difference, and some of ’em was beginning to see that there was no difference. Of course, there was still a lot of prejudice among white people in those days, but hard times makes peculiar bedfellows sometimes, and so some of them were beginning to get their eyes open and see that all of them were being used.”

Lesson Objective

Students will explain how governmental and non-governmental attempts to remedy the economic dislocations of the Great Depression presented opportunities for collaboration or competition between races by creating an imagined conversation in response to a photo prompt.



  1. Activator: Political Cartoon Analysis
  2. Ideally, students have already learned that Huey Long criticized the New Deal as benefiting the wealthy more than the poor. If you have not yet studied Long, you must briefly identify him as a leading critic of the New Deal. It would be helpful to inform/remind students that Long was a southern politician whose “Share Our Wealth” program had its own initiatives for addressing poverty.
  3. In examining the political cartoon, students will see that Long himself was criticized because he advocated programs that would assist African Americans. Before examining the cartoon, consider the maturity and sensitivity of students in viewing racially offensive caricatures. If students are not equipped to deal with the image, you may describe it to them, instead of viewing it.
  4. Question #1: How did the person who made the cartoon feel about Huey Long’s attitude toward African Americans?
  5. Question #2: Why might the person who made the cartoon feel threatened by Southern blacks and whites working together for economic relief, recovery, and reform?
  6. Review lesson objectives.
  7. Activity: Primary Source Analysis
  8. Provide pre-established work pairs with one of the selected documents. Allow students 10 minutes to read and discuss.
  9. Remind students of the lesson objectives. Have pairs share out to the whole class in order to complete the T-chart on the Promethean Board, whiteboard, or chart paper. Students should complete their own copy to assist with the next step. Discuss results of the T-chart.


Students should be assigned to re-examine the American Culture in the 1930s chart and make notes in the margin about which groups they think would be most likely to work together and which would be most likely to work against each other.


Remind students of the lesson objectives. Remind students of the rules for completing an Imagined Conversation (use the interaction between figures in the photograph to demonstrate what has been learned). Give students 10 minutes to work as a pair on an Imagined Conversation for Russell Lee’s photograph.

Homework (Formative)

Students will write a BCR for the prompt: “How did racism impact the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union?”


Honors: Advanced students may be asked to have each work pair partner prepare different imagined conversations.

SPED/ELL: It is helpful to provide students who could use additional scaffolding with one or more of the following

  • A glossary of key vocabulary terms that they will encounter.
  • A few visual aids to trigger prior learning and provide “hooks” to the formation of new knowledge. For example, students can view photographs of sharecroppers and of SFTU leaders (such as Dorothea Lange’s portrait of J.R. Butler).
  • Sentence starters for the “Imagined Conversation”


McElvaine, Robert. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters From the “Forgotten Man.” NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, p. 79-95.

“Handout 2: Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union: Oral History,” Civilrightsteaching.org, http://www.civilrightsteaching.org/Handouts/SouthernTenantFarmersUnion.pdf

“Determining Whether Southern Union Farmers Should Integrate,” Documenting the American South, UNC: University Library, http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/E-0003/excerpts/excerpt_5626.html#fulltext”>http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/E-0003/excerpts/excerpt_5626.html#fulltext

Russell, Lee (photographer). “Negro and white man sitting on curb talking, Muskogee, Oklahoma.” From The Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997026753/PP/

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