Not Making it

Stephen Fender

  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and how it changed America by Nicholas Lemann
    Macmillan, 410 pp, £20.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 333 56584 3

From 1940 the poor black sharecroppers of the Southern United States began to go north in large numbers. The movement seemed to resemble the great emigrations that had created America in the first place. Anxious to escape deteriorating conditions at home, the migrants were also attracted by opportunities far away. They wanted to better themselves, to extend their possibilities, and they were willing to uproot themselves in order to do so.

Nicholas Lemann’s judicious, well-written study concentrates on the poor blacks of Clarksdale, Mississippi, who moved to Chicago. The invention and production of cotton-picking machines had begun to undercut the value of their work, while Chicago, deprived of cheap labour by restrictions on American immigration introduced in the Twenties, and by increasing demands on the work-force made by a country beginning to arm itself for the coming war, had many thousands of unskilled jobs awaiting workers in such labour-intensive operations as cleaning and domestic services, the Post Office and the large mail-order retailing-houses.

If the black migration had conformed to the pattern set (if only in the popular imagination) by the great immigrations from Europe, South America and the Far East, then blacks in Chicago and other Northern cities today would be living in two-parent, nuclear families, holding down steady jobs and saving to send their kids to college. Instead, they have become an underclass trapped in ghettos which (in Lemann’s words) their ‘self-destructive behaviour ... drug use, out-of-wedlock childbearing, dropping out of school’ have turned into ‘among the worst places to live in the world’.

What went wrong? It certainly wasn’t that American blacks lacked enterprise, courage, intelligence and plain decency – nor that the Federal Government failed to respond to these qualities when the blacks’ political acumen and skill at organising forced them into the public consciousness. From 1954, when the NAACP took Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education to the Supreme Court and won its judgment that state education could not be ‘equal’ if it was also ‘separate’, through a decade of Martin Luther King’s non-violent marches, boycotts and sit-ins against Southern segregation, American Presidents were forced at last to pay serious attention to the African American. If Eisenhower was reluctant and Kennedy visionary, it was Lyndon Johnson who turned black aspirations into fact – into government schemes like the Jobs Corps for training, the pre-school programme Head Start, and War on Poverty, which distributed over one billion dollars in welfare benefits to local communities in its first year alone. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places and threatened to withdraw funds from all Federally-assisted projects in which any kind of racial discrimination took place. A year later, the Voters’ Registration Act cut through the procedural barriers erected by Southern States to prevent blacks from voting.

Johnson saw black welfare in terms of his experience with Roosevelt’s New Deal; he wanted (as Lemann puts it) to ‘teach children and put adults to work’. Above all, black votes were to be the key to black advancement. As Johnson remarked to an old political ally, ‘if they give blacks the vote, ol’ Strom Thurmond’ – the segregationist Senator – ‘will be kissing every black ass in South Carolina.’ And so he did, in a manner of speaking. By the end of 1965 250,000 new black voters had been registered in the South; blacks began to take their place in Southern State Legislatures, and later as mayors and governors of cities and States in the South as well as the North.

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