Phil's post on blacks and the 1928 election made me thumb through Nancy Weiss's Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, generally recognized as the premier work on the realignment of African-American voters in the 1930s. In 1928, Al Smith did run slightly better among black voters than did his Democratic predecessors -- although that included two extremely weak candidates in 1920 and 1924, and before them, ardent segregationist and "Birth of a Nation" fan Woodrow Wilson. But Smith's gains were due more to the impact of attacks on his Catholicism (which allowed Democrats to seek black support with the slogan "A Vote For Smith is a Vote Against the Klan") and years of Republican neglect of African-American voters. Weiss never mentions the flood of 1927, although Herbert Hoover made it clear that he favored a "lily-white" GOP that might make gains in the South. The Democrats did wage a more determined campaign among black voters than had been their previous practice and a few prominent black leaders endorsed Smith. Smith and Walter White of the NAACP discussed an even more extensive effort, including having Smith discuss black concerns in public speeches.
But Jim Crow influence remained strong in the Democratic Party -- at the national convention in Houston, black alternates and spectators were seated inside a cage of chicken wire. Southern Democrats persuaded Smith not to speak out on civil rights or meet with black leaders. And Smith's gains were modest at best. Weiss finds that Smith won 27 percent in the black precincts of Chicago, up from Democratic perfomances of 10% in 1924 and 11% in 1920. But Smith ran no better in Harlem than did 1924 nominee John W. Davis (who would later argue the segregationist case in Brown); both men lost the neighborhood by almost 3-to-1. Even in 1932, black voters remained loyal to the GOP; their realignment would not occur until after FDR took office.
The black vote still didn't matter much in those days. The great majority (79 percent) of African-Americans lived in the South, where few could vote. Blacks were still a small minority in most Northern cities: 5 percent in New York City (1930 census data), 7 percent in Chicago , 11 percent in Philadelphia, 8 percent in Detroit and 3 percent in Los Angeles. (Statewide percentages, of course, were even smaller -- 3 percent in New York State, 4.5 in Pennsylvania, 4 in Illinois). Some urban politicians, such as Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson (R-Capone) were starting to court the "colored vote." But appeals to "civil rights" were usually understood as means of winning over Jewish voters (already important in New York and elsewhere) or labor unions (sensitive to the tactics used by employers, courts and law enforcement to stop strikes or organizing).