Democratic Attitudes Towards Jim Crow In 1944? A Cartoon View

by John Holbo on February 9, 2015

I’m an animation history buff, as you may know. Here’s something I noticed today.

“Hell-Bent For Election”, the 1944, Chuck Jones-directed, proto-UPA pro-FDR agit-prop classic, shows Roosevelt’s streamlined profile as the head of the Win The War Special. On the other track is the Defeatist Limited, pulling various cars including, finally, the Jim Crow Car.


That is, the cartoon basically says: vote FDR, because Thomas Dewey is in favor of Jim Crow.

I am very surprised to see this messaging in 1944. I wouldn’t have thought the Democrats would have wanted to go there. Too much of a raw nerve. Too close to home for a party still based in the South. (Probably also unfair to Dewey, but the cartoon isn’t a model of fairness. It contains a pretty raw ad hitlerum argument. The surprise is only that it seems to risk offending the white Democratic base.)

It wouldn’t surprise me if the cartoonists, who were all lefties, were wishing FDR further to the left. Maybe message discipline for this stuff wasn’t very tight.

The cartoon got a lot of play in the election. From a book on history of the studio:

The film worked. Distributed in 16 mm by Brandon Films, Inc., of New York City, the cartoon could be rented for ten dollars. Boxoffice reported that it was screened in “union halls, political clubs – even in private homes at parties organized for fund raising purposes.” Naturally, the liberal press trumpeted Hell-Bent For Election: “Clever cartooning, obviously done by Hollywood’s best,” noted John T. McManus in the newspaper PM. The Daily Worker praised the cartoon’s “expert craftsmanship and sound political advice to labor and the nation.” Hell-Bent also warranted a two-page spread in Life – a periodical aimed at the middle-American mind. Direction magazine estimated that Hell-Bent was “shown to more than ten million persons.” (57)

What do you think? I’d be kind of curious to see the Life spread.



BruceB 02.09.15 at 3:29 pm

The wikipedia article on this film states that it was produced and distributed by the United Auto Workers. I doubt that the UAW had much of a presence in the south in 1944, and I suspect this film was rarely seen by audiences in states that had Jim Crow laws. I would be interested to know if the Jim Crow caboose made it into the Life spread.


BruceB 02.09.15 at 3:39 pm

Google Books has all issues of Lift through 1972. You want the Sept. 11, 1944 issue, and the film is covered on pages 96-97, part of a longer article on union PACs. Don’t see the Jim Crow caboose.
Direct link here.


LizardBreath 02.09.15 at 3:59 pm

Is anyone else having deja vu? I swear I’ve seen almost exactly this post before (same animated short linked, same surprise at the Jim Crow reference), and I thought it was here, although I can’t find it on a quick search. Might have been quite a while back, and maybe the discussion happened in comments –I’m vaguely recalling a Donald Duck short also being referenced?


MPAVictoria 02.09.15 at 4:04 pm

You might be thinking of Boing Boing LizardBreath….


LizardBreath 02.09.15 at 4:11 pm

Wouldn’t be Boing Boing. I just searched Edge of The American West, which is the sort of place I might have mixed up with here on that topic, but that doesn’t seem to be it either. Not important, anyway, it’s just going to nag at me.


MPAVictoria 02.09.15 at 4:21 pm

Well I hope you figure it out. :-)


BruceB 02.09.15 at 4:28 pm

@LizardBreath: I had a bit of that feeling too. It’s at some hack site “Lawyers, Guns & Money” that doesn’t even use the Oxford comma in their name.
Also turns up here.


LizardBreath 02.09.15 at 4:42 pm

Thank you! I should have thought of LGM.


John Holbo 02.09.15 at 4:45 pm

Oddly, I have a sense of deja vu that maybe I posted about the cartoon before, but not the Jim Crow part. I referenced the Magoo book before, while discussing some other UPA history here:


MPAVictoria 02.09.15 at 4:46 pm

I should have guessed it would be Erik Loomis. He loves this kinda thing.

/Thank you Bruce. :-)


Phil 02.09.15 at 5:18 pm

1944 seems very early for the Dems to dissociate themselves from Jim Crow – four years too early, at least – and very early indeed for them to hang it on the Republicans, let alone Thomas Dewey personally. Fascinating.

Wikipedia on Dewey (T.) is good value:

Speech after speech was filled with empty statements of the obvious, such as the famous quote: “You know that your future is still ahead of you.” An editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal summed it up:

No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.

“No presidential candidate in the future”, eh? Hmm.


bianca steele 02.09.15 at 5:48 pm

This happened presumably before the CIO purged its Communists, and some influence from that direction would be my guess. It would be surprising to learn that we expect Communists to avoid “offending the white Democratic base.”


Glen Tomkins 02.09.15 at 5:50 pm

In 1944, the Ds still remembered being out of power for generations preceding 1932, so different factions of the D coalition were willing to tolerate the occasional poke in the eye, at least as long as it was only messaging. FDR presumably couldn’t have gotten the Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act through. Actual substance would presumably have provoked a revolt of Southern Ds, but messaging they could tolerate.

That said, there was a black vote in at least some Southern states, even in 1944. In Louisiana, blacks, at least New Orleans blacks, were part of the coalition the Longs built. Even the Longs did not, however, do much about extending the black vote in rural Louisiana, presumably because that would have lost too much of the Bubba vote to make the extra black votes worthwhile. But in New Orleans, the only sizable anti-Long bastion, they needed as many votes as they could get, from wherever they could get them, and blacks were willing to vote against the local anti-Long machine because the local machine wasn’t giving them anything anyway. The Longs’ rural white voters didn’t seem to care about the Long machine trawling for black votes in New Orleans. New Orleans was Sin City, with all sorts of horrible things going on there that decent Protestant people found abhorrent. As long as their political machine didn’t give the local blacks any ideas, getting New Orleans blacks to vote Long was the least of the iniquities going on in Sin City.

I assume that’s why the Jim Crow car was allowed in this cartoon. The Ds were going after pockets of black voters throughout the country, but messaging only, no substance, so the Bubba part of their coalition didn’t mind the messaging. It helped them win and didn’t actually threaten white supremacy in the South..


rootlesscosmo 02.09.15 at 6:00 pm

Wasn’t 1944 the year A. Philip Randolph was persuaded to call off a big civil rights demonstration by promises that the armed forces would be desegregated after the war?


Bill Harshaw 02.09.15 at 6:08 pm

If the South was still solid Democrat, then wouldn’t the battleground for national victory have been increasing the urban vote in the North and wouldn’t motivating the black vote resulting from the Great Migration have been a good play? Adam Clayton Powell Jr was elected to the House for the first time in this election.


Greg Koos 02.09.15 at 6:34 pm

I was surprised by the Popular Front rhetoric. The reference of the opposition as wreckers is quite the tell. Also the use of Joe Hill’s tune the Preacher and the Slave from the IWW song book is surprising. I had no idea that people were using Hill’s work in the 1940s. Your grandfather’s Democratic Party was inclusive of the left. The cartoon at the end also showed an integrated workforce that included women. I am deeply grateful that you posted this.


Harold 02.09.15 at 7:04 pm

@14 & 16 The labor march that A. Philip Randolph called off was in 1941. It was called off because of FDR’s Executive 8802 forbidding discrimination in employment by private defense industries having contracts with the federal government. This was right after Hitler’s invasion of Russia but more than six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor when the German declared war on the US..

Since there was still considerable prejudice among white workers the CIO launched an anti-racism campaign among its own union membership in which the Almanac Singers, of whom Woody Guthrie (a devotee of Joe Hill’s little red songbook), and Josh White were very active.

Here is an interesting link:


Harold 02.09.15 at 7:06 pm

“of whom” should be “in which”.


Harold 02.09.15 at 7:36 pm

Joe Hill was referred to in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag (1927) and featured as a legendary figure in Sandburg’s book-length poem “The People, Yes” (1936), which contained the line “Don’t mourn for me but organize.” During Popular Front era, the Communist Party USA and the CIO also appropriated Joe Hill in their union organizing activities.


Harold 02.09.15 at 8:02 pm

Josh White was an intimate friend of Franklin and Eleanor. It is interesting that according to the link about Eleanor and race relations, Margaret Truman declined to resign from membership in the DAR.


Anderson 02.09.15 at 8:09 pm

Of course, those riding the Jim Crow car have to sit in the back of the train.


The Other DSCH 02.09.15 at 8:32 pm

There was far more ideological diversity within the democratic party at that time (don’t forget, Henry Wallace was still vice president).


Lenoxus 02.09.15 at 8:42 pm

There’s the obligatory awful Japanese caricature, of course, not that that’s a distinction between the parties at the time (as far as I know).

There’s something charming about the Dewey train’s beat-down nature compared to the ultra-modern War Machine it races. Ironically, it’s been argued that one factor in Truman’s surprise victory over Dewey in the election after this one was that the Dewey team released a major newsreel advertisement for movie theaters, the Truman campaign threw one together at the last minute to match it, and Dewey’s came off as too slick by comparison to the more relatable Truman ad.

Many of the train’s cars are initially hard to parse, because the label alone doesn’t indicate “This is a plank in the Republican platform!” but rather “This paltry car represents the low level of Republican support for this thing”. For example, “Social Security” is represented by a presumably homeless man on a park bench, symbolizing “inadequate Social Security”, not “Social Security: Boo!”. From this, it occurred to me that the “Jim Crow car” has a weird plausible deniability if shown to racist voters: “You see, just like the ‘unemployment insurance’ is shown to be a bunch of apples, the ‘Jim Crow’ car is dilapidated because the segregationist policies of the Republicans are pathetic and won’t accomplish real segregation.” Okay, that’s a huge stretch on my part, but you do have to perform a kind of mental gymnastics to parse the iconography, in part because a huge element of today’s debate is about whether (for example) unemployment insurance is inherently a terrible thing that enables laziness or whatever. Thus, in a modern context, “My opponent’s train has a car devoted to the dole!” (Dole brand fruit!) could be an attack.

Relating to the Louisville editorial’s point and the irony of it (I mean, “our rivers are full of fish” is actually a substantive and verifiable assertion, unlike the content of today’s speeches): I was struck by how relatively-detailed this film was on economic policy, going so far as to describe the opponents’ positions and supporting arguments for those positions, albeit with bias and in a nightmare sequence. Today, the axis of discussion is pretty much “Less government” versus “Government is okay sometimes”. I guess neither party had anything like a libertarian mindset, so it was all about getting government to work properly, not about whether that’s possible.

An amusing moment at the end which almost seems like a Simpsons one-liner: Big business is offered a number of perks from Democratic policies, and small business is only offered “protection from big business”.

Why does the villain repeatedly blow smoke in the face of a man he wants to remain asleep? Is it some kind of soporific drug? I assume that smoke in my face would wake me up, but maybe it has the opposite effect, and night house fires are even more dangerous than I thought.


Eric 02.09.15 at 8:44 pm

I have used this in lecture, and could have sworn I had blogged on it but… apparently not! Anyway, the points above are apposite: this is when CIO PAC is pushing hard for African Americans to vote in the South.


Harold 02.09.15 at 9:02 pm

@22 “I was struck by how relatively-detailed this film was on economic policy, going so far as to describe the opponents’ positions and supporting arguments for those positions, albeit with bias and in a nightmare sequence. Today, the axis of discussion is pretty much “Less government” versus “Government is okay sometimes”. I guess neither party had anything like a libertarian mindset, so it was all about getting government to work properly, not about whether that’s possible.”

Indeed, lack of cynicism relative to today is very striking. Thank you John Holbo for posting this. I will just mention, for anyone who didn’t notice, that the words and music are respectively by Yip Harburg (lyricist of “Over the Rainbow”) and Earl Robinson (author of the song “Joe Hill”), both subsequently blacklisted.


Harold 02.09.15 at 9:24 pm

@23, Eric, surely you are not suggesting the cartoon was directed primarily at African Americans. It got a two-page spread in Life magazine (“aimed at the Middle-American mind”), no?


LizardBreath 02.09.15 at 9:24 pm

Eric at 23: You did! That is, you blogged about and linked the cartoon here, without referring to it by title. That’s the post I was thinking of.


Eric 02.09.15 at 9:33 pm

surely you are not suggesting the cartoon was directed primarily at African Americans.

I am, indeed, not. Nor said so.


Eric 02.09.15 at 9:34 pm

Eric at 23: You did!

That is a relief, of a kind.


Bruce Wilder 02.10.15 at 12:02 am

Lenoxus: Why does the villain repeatedly blow smoke . . . ?

“to blow smoke” is idiomatic for: “to say things that are not true in order to make yourself or something you are involved with seem better than it is” (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd edition)


Lenoxus 02.10.15 at 12:26 am

Bruce: Ah, I hadn’t thought of the idiom. That makes sense.


David of Yreka 02.10.15 at 5:13 pm

Might it not be that the Jim Crow car was the 40s equivalent of a dog-whistle? If disgust with segregation was only an issue for some small and not particularly influential fraction, then feeding that fraction with something that it would recognize but that would not raise too many hackles elsewhere might have been a good electoral strategy. One recalls the phrase “Law and Order” in the later 60s, and “Makers and Takers” more recently.

For such a strategy to work as planned, the label “Jim Crow” would have to be relatively invisible to the overwhelming majority of one’s opponents; but in that day, I rather think that pro-segregationists might have seen “Jim Crow” as a positive or neutral phrase encoding protection for the status quo.

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