The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration | History | Smithsonian

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great MigrationWhen millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of a better life, they remade the nation in ways that are still being feltAn African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)By Isabel WilkersonSMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | SUBSCRIBE SEPTEMBER 20168.9K 73 2 29 14 37 13.1K 8.9K 73 29 14 2 13.1KIn 1963, the American mathematician Edward Lorenz, taking a measure of the earth’s atmosphere in a laboratory that would seem far removed from the social upheavals of the time, set forth the theory that a single “flap of a sea gull’s wings” could redirect the path of a tornado on another continent, that it could, in fact, be “enough to alter the course of the weather forever,” and that, though the theory was then new and untested, “the most recent evidence would seem to favor the sea gulls.”FROM THIS STORY The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationBUYAt that moment in American history, the country had reached a turning point in a fight for racial justice that had been building for decades. This was the year of the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, of Gov. George Wallace blocking black students at the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama, the year of the March on Washington, of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” By then, millions of African-Americans had already testified with their bodies to the repression they had endured in the Jim Crow South by defecting to the North and West in what came to be known as the Great Migration. They were fleeing a world where they were restricted to the most menial of jobs, underpaid if paid at all, and frequently barred from voting. Between 1880 and 1950, an African-American was lynched more than once a week for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy.“They left as though they were fleeing some curse,” wrote the scholar Emmett J. Scott, an observer of the early years of the migration. “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket and they left with the intention of staying.”The migration began, like the flap of a sea gull’s wings, as a rivulet of black families escaping Selma, Alabama, in the winter of 1916. Their quiet departure was scarcely noticed except for a single paragraph in the Chicago Defender, to whom they confided that “the treatment doesn’t warrant staying.” The rivulet would become rapids, which grew into a flood of six million people journeying out of the South over the course of six decades. They were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country, not unlike refugees in other parts of the world fleeing famine, war and pestilence.Until that moment and from the time of their arrival on these shores, the vast majority of African-Americans had been confined to the South, at the bottom of a feudal social order, at the mercy of slaveholders and their descendants and often-violent vigilantes. The Great Migration was the first big step that the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.“Oftentimes, just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do,” wrote John Dollard, an anthropologist studying the racial caste system of the South in the 1930s, “and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put on.”The refugees could not know what was in store for them and for their descendants at their destinations or what effect their exodus would have on the country. But by their actions, they would reshape the social and political geography of every city they fled to. When the migration began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation.Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazineBUYMerely by leaving, African-Americans would get to participate in democracy and, by their presence, force the North to pay attention to the injustices in the South and the increasingly organized fight against those injustices. By leaving, they would change the course of their lives and those of their children. They would become Richard Wright the novelist instead of Richard Wright the sharecropper. They would become John Coltrane, jazz musician instead of tailor; Bill Russell, NBA pioneer instead of paper mill worker; Zora Neale Hurston, beloved folklorist instead of maidservant. The children of the Great Migration would reshape professions that, had their families not left, may never have been open to them, from sports and music to literature and art: Miles Davis, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morr

Source: The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration | History | Smithsonian

 

Isabel Wilkerson is a former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner. She is the author of the best-selling The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

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The American Case Against a Black Middle Class l TA-NEHISI COATES l The Atlantic

The American Case Against a Black Middle Class

 JAN 22 2013 

I went on a Twitter rant yesterday because I’d finished Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal The Warmth Of Other Suns. The book is a narrative history of the Great Migration through the eyes of actual migrants. Several points stick out for me.

1) The Great Migration was not an influx of illiterate, bedraggled, lazy have-nots. Wilkerson marshalls a wealth of social science data showing that the migrants were generally better educated than their Northern brethren, more likely to stay married, and more likely to stay employed. In fact, in some cases, black migrants were better educated than their Northern white neighbors.
2) In this sense, the migrants to Northern cities resembled immigrant classes to whom black people in these same cities are often unfavorably compared to. There’s a quote in Wilkerson’s book which I can’t find where a supervisor basically says that blacks are the favored workers because they will work hard at the worst jobs for relatively little money. You would have thought the guy was talking about Hispanic farm-hands today.
3) The black migrants were not immigrants. They were citizens of this country who did not enjoy its full protection. Unlike other immigrant classes, blacks were never able to cash in on their hard work and middle-class values. For all of their work-ethic, education-valuing, and long-term marriages, they received the worst wages in the worst jobs, were limited to the worst housing, and stuffed in the worst schools.
4) What becomes clear by the end of Wilkerson’s book is that America’s response to the Great Migration was to enact a one-sided social contract. America says to its citizens, “Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete.” The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract. It goes back, at least, to Reconstruction.
5) The half-assed social contract continues to this very day with policies under the present administration, like the bail-out of banks that left the homeowners whom the banks conned underwater. The results of the housing crisis for black people have been devastating. The response is to hector these people about playing video games and watching too much television. Or to tell them they’ve have “an achievement gap.” It is sickening, dishonest, and morally repugnant.
6) America does not really want a black middle class. Some of the most bracing portions of Wilkerson’s book involve the vicious attacks on black ambition. When a black family in Chicago saves up enough to move out of the crowded slums into Cicero, the neighborhood riots. The father had saved for years for a piano for his kids. The people of Cicero tossed the piano out the window, looted his home, torched his apartment and then torched his building. In the South, when black people attempted to leave to earn better wages, they were often forcibly detained, and thus kept in slavery as late as the 1950s.
On a policy level, there is a persistent strain wherein efforts to aid The People are engineered in such a way wherein they help black people a lot less. It is utterly painful to read about the New Deal being left in the hands of Southern governments which were hostile to black people, and then to today see a significant chunk of health care, again, left in the hands of Southern governments which are hostile to black people.  At this point, such efforts no longer require open bigotry. They are simply built into the system.
7) “That the Negro American has survived at all, is extraordinary.” That is from the Moynihan report, which neo-liberals are fond of touting, while ignoring the report’s lengthy policy recommendations.
8) Get the book. Read it now. Today is too late.

 – Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful StruggleMore