restricted access 4. The Popular Front. Strength in Unity: New York City Organizations Come Together in Solidarity
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Implementing a Vision PART II 85 Young activists had tried, with some limited success, to make the educational system more amenable to their needs and more responsive to their worldview by demanding free speech and racial equality. Compared to their goals for a free, democratic, and equal society, though, their gains were meager and frustratingly difficult to attain. They realized administrators, board members, and even teachers were determined to maintain the educational system’s conservative status quo, and thus they clearly understood the opposition they had to overcome in order for their vision of America to materialize. They came to believe that the only way to implement real economic and social change was to become enmeshed in the political system, but that also engendered a transformation of the political system itself. America, they believed, must be wrested from the elite power brokers and made truly democratic before their other goals could be achieved.In a true democracy, the voice of young people would be listened to, and they would be involved in making decisions that affected them. Young people would have to become policymakers. Before they could be accepted as representatives of a valued constituency, however , activists had to bring young people together, for only in mass unity would their voice be heard and their ideas be given serious consideration in America’s new brand of interest group politics. To that end, two organizations were created by young people to represent them in the political arena: the American Youth Congress, established in 1934 to represent all youth, and the American Student Union, formed in 1935 to represent all students. Dedicated to addressing youth’s 4 The Popular Front: Strength in Unity New York City Organizations Come Together in Solidarity 86 Implementing a Vision needs, these organizations came to exert influence in the formulation of New Deal youth policy. In becoming political players, young activists did not realize that many of their number would abrogate their radicalism. Socialists and communists held fast to their desire to restructure the social, economic, and political systems; however, they took a significant step away from revolutionary action in their willingness to see what the New Deal could provide in the meantime, and upon taking that first step, many of them would never return to the revolutionary fold.1 They adopted this course not just because the New Deal seemed to move toward the restructuring they favored, but also because radicals’ hands became tied to those of the liberals by the menace of fascism. Radicals joined Popular Front organizations as a way to work toward their goals in the face of an increasingly hostile global environment.Meanwhile, liberals, who might have shunned working with radicals before this time, came to see that they had much in common. One liberal who called for a genuine youth movement in America distinct from both the fascist and Russian models expressed this point of view when he said that what bound American youth together was that “we do have a sense of the traditions upon which our country was established—the American Dream, if you will, of a classless society with equality of opportunity—and we know that that tradition has been violated.”2 Aside from occasional background checks on youth activists, New Deal policymakers largely ignored American youth in the early Depression years: They seemed to be both oblivious to their plight and neglectful of their needs. It was not until 1934 that activist youth, as representatives of young people’s organizations, began to pierce New Dealers’ consciousness with any kind of frequency. By June, Linton M. Collins, personnel director and division administrator for the National Recovery Administration, was strongly advising the president to reach out to pro– New Deal–youth organizations such as the Junior Chamber of Commerce ( JCC), which had 200,000 members in 250 cities across the nation and, according to Collins, was “one of the most potent forces in our national life.”3 In compliance, FDR sent a letter in “sincere appreciation for their contribution to our national program of recovery.”4 Collins seemed to have recognized, as only a few others did at the time, that large youth organizations’ support was essential if the younger generation was to bear the New Deal mantle in the future. By this time, young people had already begun to come together to make that specific point as well as a broader one: recognition of youth’s role in defining the future of The Popular Front 87 America, itself...


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