The Great Migration and the Power of a Single Decision: Isabel Wilkerson (Full Transcript)

Imagine with me this scene. It’s a scene that played out in nearly all of our families. It’s a scene in which a young person, somewhere in our family tree, somewhere in our lineage had a heartbreaking decision to make. It was a decision to leave all that they had known. And all of the people that they had loved and to set out for a place far, far away that they had never seen in hopes that life might be better.

Migration is usually a young person’s endeavor. It’s the kind of thing that you do when you’re on the cusp of life. And so, there is, in all of our families, this young person somewhere in our background. That person is standing at a dock, about to board a ship that will cross the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. That person is loading up a truck that will cross the Rio Grande. Or that person is standing at a railroad platform about to board a train that will cross rivers and mountains out of the Jim Crow South to what they hope will be freedom in the North.

And there, with this young person as they are about to board that ship, that boat, that truck, that train, are the people who raised them. Their mother, their father, their aunt, their uncle, their grandparents, whoever it might have been who had gotten them to this point. Those older people were not going to be able to make the crossing with them. And as they looked into the eyes of the people who had raised them, there was no guarantee that they would ever see them alive again.

Remember, there was no Skype, no e-mail, no cell phones not even reliable long-distance telephone service. And even if there had been, many of the people that they were leaving did not even have telephones. This was going to be a complete break from all that they knew and all of the people that they loved. And the very next time that they might hear anything about the people who had raised them might be a telegram saying, “Your father has passed away.” Or, “Your mother is very, very ill. You must return home quickly if you are to see her alive again.”

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That is the magnitude of the sacrifice that had to have happened in nearly all of our families just for us to be here. A single decision that changed the course of families and lineages and countries and history to the current day.

One of these migration streams stands out in ways that we may not realize. It was called the Great Migration. It 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. It stands out because 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.

So this great migration was not a move. It was actually 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. This caste system was so arcane that it was actually against the law for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham. You could go to jail if you were caught playing checkers with a person of a different race. Someone must have seen a black person and a white person playing checkers with someone in some town square. And maybe the wrong person was winning or they were having too good of a time, but whatever it was that this person saw, with this black person and this white person playing checkers, they felt the entire foundation of Southern civilization was in peril. And decided that it was worth taking the time to write this down as a law.

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This caste system was so arcane that in courtrooms throughout the South there was actually a black Bible and an altogether separate white Bible to swear to tell the truth on in court. The very word of God was segregated in the caste system of the Jim Crow South. The same sacred object could not be touched by hands of different races.

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 caste system had been put in place for many, many reasons. But one of them was to maintain the economic order of the South, which required not just a supply of cheap labor but an oversupply of cheap labor to work at the will of the land.

This Great Migration began when the North had a labor problem. The North had a labor problem because it had been relying on cheap labor from Europe — immigrants from Europe — to work the 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 had a labor problem. And so the North decided to go and find the cheapest labor in the land which meant African Americans in the South, many of whom were not even 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.

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