Skip to content
Home » The Great Migration and the Power of a Single Decision: Isabel Wilkerson (Full Transcript)

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

Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson – 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.”

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.

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.

But it turned out that the South did not take kindly to this poaching of its cheap labor. The South actually did everything it could to keep the people from leaving. They would arrest people from the railroad platforms. Remember, putatively free American citizens. They would arrest them from their train seats.

And when there were too many people to arrest, they would wave the train on through so that people who had been hoping and saving and praying for the chance to get to freedom had to figure out: How now will we get out? And as they made their way out of the South, away from Jim Crow, they followed three beautifully predictable streams as is the case in any migration throughout human history.

In this particular case, there were three streams. One was the migration along the East Coast from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington DC, to Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and on up the East coast. There was the Midwest stream, which carried people from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to Chicago, to Detroit, to Cleveland and the entire Midwest.

And then there was the West Coast stream, which carried people from Louisiana and Texas out to California. And when they really wanted to get away, they went to Seattle. And when they really, really wanted to get away, they went to Alaska, the farthest possible point within the borders of the United States from Jim Crow South.

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. So this ended up being nearly 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 that soil at that time. It had not happened in 12 generations of enslavement that preceded nearly a century of Jim Crow. How many “greats” do you have to add to the word “grandparent” to begin to imagine how long enslavement lasted in the United States?

Secondly, this Great Migration was the first time in American history that the lowest caste people actually had a chance to choose for themselves what they would do with their God-given talents and where they would pursue them.

Think about those cotton fields and those rice plantations and those tobacco fields and those sugar plantations. On those sugar plantations, and on those tobacco fields, and on those rice plantations, and on those cotton fields were opera singers, jazz musicians, playwrights, novelists, surgeons, attorneys, accountants, professors, journalists. And how do we know that?

We know that because that is what they and their children and now their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren have often chosen to become once they had the chance to choose for themselves what they would do with their God-given talents.

Without the Great Migration, there might not have been a Toni Morrison as we now know her to be. Her parents were from Alabama and from Georgia. They migrated to Ohio, where their daughter would get to do something that we all take for granted at this point, but which was against the law and against protocol for African Americans at the time that she would have been growing up in the South, had they stayed.

And that is just to walk into a library and take out a library book. Merely by making the single decision to leave, her parents assured that their daughter would get access to books. And if you’re going to become a Nobel laureate, it helps to get a book now and then. You know, it helps.

Music as we know it was reshaped by the Great Migration. As they came North, they brought with them, on their hearts and in their memories, the music that had sustained the ancestors — the blues music, the spirituals and the gospel music that had sustained them through the generations. And they converted this music into whole new genres of music. And got the chance to record this music, this new music that they were creating, and to spread it throughout the world.

Without the Great Migration, “Motown” would not have existed. The founder, Berry Gordy, his parents were from Georgia. They migrated to Detroit. And when he got to be a grown man, he decided he wanted to go into music.

But he didn’t have the wherewithal to go all over the country looking for the best talent, and it turned out he didn’t have to. It turned out that there he was, surrounded by children of the Great Migration whose parents had brought this music up with them during the journey. And among those children were these three girls, there was Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and there was a third one: Diana Ross.

We might not know Diana Ross’ name had there been no Great Migration. Because like a lot of Americans and a lot of human beings in general, she might not have existed because her parents might not have met. Her mother was from Alabama, father from West Virginia, they migrated to Detroit, different years, met, married, had her and her siblings, and thus a legend was born.

Jazz was a creation of the Great Migration. And one of the greatest gifts of the Great Migration. Starting with Louis Armstrong, who was born in Louisiana and migrated on the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago, where he got the chance to build on the talent that was within him all along.

Miles Davis. His parents were from Arkansas. They migrated to southern Illinois, where he would get the chance to build on the talents that were within him all along but which could have gone fallow in the cotton country of Arkansas. John Coltrane. He migrated at the age of 16 from North Carolina to Philadelphia, where, upon arrival in Philadelphia, he got his first alto sax. And there are lovers of jazz who cannot imagine a world without John Coltrane having gotten a hold of a saxophone. Thelonious Monk. Michael Jackson. Jesse Owens. Prince. August Wilson. Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison. Michelle Obama.

These are all a few of the millions of people who were products of the single decision to migrate. 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.

Thank you.

Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.