In 1935 Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration, picked Hallie Flanagan, a Vassar College professor, to run a federal project that gave away money, no strings attached. Four years later Congress killed the program. The Republicans lambasted it as communist-inspired, un-American, and a cog in President Franklin Roosevelt's propaganda machine. Short-lived and unloved or not, it's time for Harry Hopkins' idea again.
The Federal Theater Project (FTP), part of Roosevelt's New Deal, created jobs for unemployed writers, actors, directors, stagehands and technicians. In the Great Depression, their productions informed and entertained Americans. Over four years, one-in four, some 30 million people, came to watch. As Americans from coast to coast confront the impact of racial injustice following George Floyd's murder, such powerful storytelling couldn't be more valuable today.
Let's stipulate that in 2020, a bill proposing that the government pay for plays would be dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill before congressional tushies warmed their hearing room seats. In a Washington where Republicans check under their beds nightly for mythical Antifa intruders and the President still rifles his desk looking for the Kenyan birth certificate his predecessor left behind, the partisan attacks would make the criticism of FDR's FTP 80 years ago look mild by comparison.
But it's crucial to acknowledge another reality: for corporate leaders who are expressing their outrage over events and sympathy for racism's victims, words alone, however heartfelt, simply won't do the trick. It isn't their personal sincerity or previous efforts that are in question. The issue is understanding the pervasiveness of the problem. Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown, Maryland's former lieutenant governor, a retired Army colonel, and an African American father of three, put it well.
"This (moment) is not new in this country," Brown, the vice-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, explained last week to Vox. "It's just revealing and exposing what we know and understand to be the inequalities in our country, brought about by racial bias and just blatant racial discrimination in people's conduct, their practice, and in policies. You see these disparities playing out in our schools, our prisons, our health system, our economy, and during this pandemic." That's where Harry Hopkins' idea can—and should—come in. In fact, the black entertainment industry has already pointed the way.