The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the outpouring of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West, from the time of World War I until the 1970s. This was the first time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens that they had always been. No other group of Americans has had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens.

Thus the Great Migration was not solely about moving. It was a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country. They were defecting a caste system known as Jim Crow. It was an artificial hierarchy in which everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like. During the era of Jim Crow, a person could go to jail if you were caught playing checkers with a person of a different race in Birmingham, Alabama, for example.

This artificial hierarchy, because it goes against human desires to be free, required a tremendous amount of violence to maintain. Such that every four days, somewhere in the American South, every four days an African American was lynched for some perceived breach of protocol in this caste system in the decades leading up to the start of the Great Migration.

This Great Migration began during World War I, when the North faced a tremendous a labor shortage. The North had been relying on the cheap labor of European immigrants to work its factories and the foundries and the steel mills. But during World War I, migration from Europe came to a virtual halt. And so the North sought out the cheapest labor in the land, which meant African Americans in the South, many of whom were not being paid for their hard work. Many of them were working for the right to live on the land that they were farming. They were sharecroppers and not even being paid. So they were ripe for recruitment.

Before the Great Migration began, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. Nearly held captive in the South. But by the time this Great Migration was over, nearly half were living all over the rest of the country, making the Great Migration a complete redistribution of part of an entire people.

This Great Migration was the first time in American history that the lowest caste people signaled that they had options and were willing to take them. That had not happened in the three centuries in which African Americans had been on this soil at that time. It had not happened in the twelve generations of enslavement that preceded nearly a century of Jim Crow.

The people of the Great Migration met with tremendous resistance in the North. And they were not able to defeat all social injustice. But one person added to another person, added to another person, multiplied by millions, were able to become the advance guard of the civil rights movement. One person added to another person, added to another person, multiplied by millions, acting on a single decision, were able to change the region that they had been forced to flee. They had more power in leaving than by staying.

By their actions, these people who had absolutely nothing were able to do what a president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was not able to do. These people, by their actions, were able to do what the Emancipation Proclamation could not do. These people, by their actions, were able to do what the powers that be, North and South, could not or would not do. They freed themselves.

Adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s TED Talk, delivered November 2017

Click here to view Isabel’s TED Talk