In Reimagining a Key New Deal Program, Joe Biden can Eliminate its RacismRoundup
tags: racism, New Deal, WPA, Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC
Katie Thornton is an award-winning journalist, public historian, and Fulbright fellow from Minneapolis. Her work has appeared on 99% Invisible, NPR, the BBC, WNYC, National Geographic and others. Find her work at www.itskatiethornton.com.
In January, President Biden announced plans to create a “Civilian Climate Corps Initiative.” Last week, the White House announced a $10 billion budget for the program, which is part of the American Jobs Plan. Though details are vague, the plan would put Americans to work in green jobs, conservation and public land restoration.
This plan takes a direct cue from the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work-relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942. The CCC provided employment for 3 million men, planted 3 billion trees and built much of our still-operational National Park infrastructure. At wayside rests and urban trails across the country, you can still find small plaques or patches of concrete stamped with the program’s initials.
Struggling and destitute young men served six-month stints in Army-run camps of 200 men, often reenlisting at the end of their terms. Each day the men did eight hours of arduous physical labor: hand-leveling roads and trails, stringing electrical wires, planting small trees (sometimes averaging more than 1,500 each day per enrollee), constructing park buildings, erecting fire lookout towers and fighting the occasional blaze.
The government fed them three meals a day — a godsend for many malnourished men, some of whom grew multiple inches during their enlistments. The vast majority of their monthly stipend went home to their families. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained the dual benefits, his voice crackling into living rooms through the new technology of radio: “[W]e are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.” Roosevelt’s administration had the first CCC camps operational within a month of his inauguration.
The CCC received — and deserved — many accolades. It helped move millions out of poverty and create the American middle class — making it an attractive model to follow today.
But the program’s immense benefits were not afforded to all Americans equitably. Despite bearing some of the earliest federal anti-discrimination language, the CCC failed to overcome segregation and the heavy hand of racism nationwide, including in the North. Understanding how racist practices — both on and off the books — limited its potential is pivotal to maximizing the benefits of a 21st century CCC.
The CCC helped launched the careers of men like Rudolph Valentino Kirk, who in 1952 became the first Black deputy sheriff in Louisiana at least since Reconstruction. Kirk spent years in Louisiana Company 4405 of the CCC. On his records, Army captains repeatedly noted Kirk’s leadership promise.