Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
“The North and the Congress basically gave up on equality for African Americans, and that set us on a course that we have not yet recovered from.”
The story of the “Great Migration” of African Americans throughout the 20th century is often framed as one of blacks heading North from the South seeking jobs and better wages. In Michael Goldfield’s book 1997 The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics, he writes:
There is, to be sure, some dispute over the degree to which conditions in the South pushed African Americans away from the South—these conditions being the decline of the cotton economy, mechanization, boll weevils, the AAA policies of the 1930s, and the general suppression of African-American rights—and the degree to which it was mostly a product of the pull caused by the calculated potential gains from the higher-paying northern labor market.
For Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the legal nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, there is no dispute. As he told told The Marshall Project Wednesday, African-American migration was and is premised more accurately on racial terror:
There are very few people who have an awareness of how widespread this terrorism and violence was, and the way it now shapes the geography of the United States. We’ve got majority black cities in Detroit, Chicago, large black populations in Oakland and Cleveland and Los Angeles and Boston, and other cities in the Northeast. And the African Americans in these communities did not come as immigrants looking for economic opportunities, they came as refugees, exiles from lands in the South where they were being terrorized. And those communities have particular needs we’ve never addressed, we’ve never talked about. We’ve got generational poverty in these cities and marginalization within black communities, and you cannot understand these present-day challenges without understanding the Great Migration, and the terror and violence that sent the African Americans to these cities where they’ve never really been afforded the care and assistance they needed to recover from the terror and trauma that were there.
This framing can’t be emphasized enough. His organization has been leading an effort to map where the close to 4,000 lynchings of African Americans happened in America between 1880 and 1940.
Racial disparities seen today, including housing segregation and the ways we continue to fail black youth, can be explained in no small part by how cities received African Americans during those “Great Migration” periods. Stevenson ties the “generational poverty” suffered today by African Americans to cities not providing “the care and assistance needed to recover” for black migrants escaping the plagues of lynchings, burned black churches, burned black towns, rapes of black women, and other racialized atrocities throughout the 20th century.
A similar situation is playing out in Europe right now, where, as David Frum writes in The Atlantic this month, African and Middle-Eastern immigrants have been flooding European cities at reportedly untenable rates. Many of those immigrants are seeking asylum from countries torn apart by war, genocide, and poverty— countries including Syria and Somalia. Some are simply seeking better economic fortunes. There’s little difference, though, in the eyes of native European residents, 57 percent of whom, reports Frum, hold negative attitudes toward people emigrating from outside the European Union.
Some nations have lately been better about taking in refugees. Frum points to camps in Jordan and Turkey that have running water, sewage disposal, schools, and electricity. However, writes Frum:
Much harder is creating economic opportunity within these overnight cities, and preventing extremism from taking hold. Harder still: prompt resolution of the wars that displace people in the first place.
There’s obviously a difference between the kind of migration seen across seas today and that of African Americans in the past century. But an injustice is illuminated in the comparison: Unlike in the European Union, African Americans were refugees in their own country; white Americans in the North and the South chose to disown their own people.
Black families who stayed behind in the South during that time period could have been identified as internally displaced peoples. The prompt resolution of the Civil War that Union government officials hoped would happen during Reconstruction collapsed under the terrorism enacted by white Southern police, government officials, vigilante mobs, and the Ku Klux Klan—all often one and the same.
Northern cities were of little sanctuary because they often perpetuated the systems and attitudes that kept African Americans classified as inferior citizens. As examined in a recent CityLab piece on the term “black-on-black crime,” Northern whites believed that African-Americans migrants were criminal by nature, which was a justification for why these cities did not offer the assistance the new migrants need.
As Stevenson told The Marshall Project:
We created a narrative of racial difference in this country to sustain slavery, and even people who didn’t own slaves bought into that narrative, including people in the North. It was New York’s governor—in the 1860s—that was talking about the inferiority of the black person even as he was opposed to slavery.
You don’t have to have owned a slave to be complicit in the institution of slavery, to have benefitted and have cheaper food to buy, cheaper materials, cheaper services, because the providers of the foods and services were using free slave labor. We were all complicit in the institution of slavery, and the same is true in the era of racial terror and lynching. The North and the Congress basically gave up on equality for African Americans, and that set us on a course that we have not yet recovered from.