The Global African: The Great Migration & An Update on Baltimore
TeleSUR’s The Global African looks at similarities between the Great Migration and immigration today & also gives an update on the situation in Baltimore.
BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll give an update on Baltimore. We’ll also talk about the parallels between the Great Migration of African Americans and immigration today.
That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us, and don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: Between the years of 1910 and 1970, around 7 million African Americans escaped the Jim Crow South and made their way up to northern cities. This period is referred to as the Great Migration. And through this massive movement, African Americans hoped to obtain way more than just their freedom. They were pursuing opportunity as well. It can be said that the immigrants today are chasing the same things.
What are the similarities and differences between the Great Migration and immigration today? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in this segment.
We’re joined for the segment with Dr. Marcia Chatelain, who is a Georgetown professor, researches a wide array of issues in African-American history. She writes and teaches about African-American migration and is the author of this book, South Side Girls, which looks at the growing up in the great migration, which is where we’re going to start.
Thank you for joining us.
MARCIA CHATELAIN, ASSIST. PROF. HISTORY, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Thank you.
FLETCHER: The Great Migration, many viewers will maybe have heard of this. What was the Great Migration?
CHATELAIN: The Great Migration was a critical movement of between 6 and 7 million African Americans, roughly between 1917 and 1970. And it’s essentially a mass exodus of people who are seeking better jobs, better opportunities for their children, especially their daughters–and that’s what I capture in my book–and an opportunity to really realize their citizenship, which was not possible in the Jim Crow South.
FLETCHER: You know, one of the things that’s perplexing for many people is that the conditions for African Americans in the South were so hostile that one would wonder, well, why was there any resistance by whites in the South to African Americans leaving.
CHATELAIN: Absolutely. This is a really interesting thing when we look at the migration, that newspapers like the Chicago Defender, which had advertisements for African Americans to get jobs in the North, it’s banned in certain cities. Job recruiters are banned from coming into some parts of the South. Movement is criminalized.
And I think it has–there’s two reasons for it. One, I think that there’s–white supremacy at that time is all about control and power. And so it would be on those terms, right, that are set forth by people in the South; that’s how people can leave. So I think it’s a power and control thing.
But the second thing also is that the mass exodus helped highlight the conditions in the South, because now we have a population of people who were once isolated, who are disconnected from media, who are able to move to the North and tell their stories about that the rule of law is not being respected, the way that the KKK and the police are in cahoots and terrorizing African Americans. And so in a sense the South was really invested in showing that things are just fine, our blacks are good, they’re happy here, they’re not going to move, and we can’t expose what’s really happening to the rest of the world.
FLETCHER: I mean, isn’t there a third factor, which is that this was having an effect on the Southern economy–in other words, that black workers were needed in the Southern economy, although, as you point out, there was a crisis in agriculture?
CHATELAIN: Well, so this is a tough one, right, because sharecropping is essentially slavery for African Americans. And so that system of labor is necessary. But after the boll weevil infestation of cottoned crops, and then you have the mechanization of the cotton picker, you don’t need the bodies. But you do need the political economy of an oppressed group that you can do whatever you want with in terms of labor. And so the question is: if the African Americans leave and you have poor whites doing this job, their whiteness is going to, ultimately, right, upend this economic system that blacks fit into. So you’re absolutely right that there is a labor concern, but, again, it’s so deeply tied into the system of white supremacy in the South.
FLETCHER: One of the things that I over the years found interesting about the migration was that the migration followed certain very definite patterns. So if you lived east of Alabama, basically, you seem to move straight up the coast–Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, straight up the Mississippi. And then you had a separate migration that becomes more important during World War II out of Arkansas and Texas that goes due west. But you see these lines that play out.
CHATELAIN: Oh, it’s amazing. So a lot of these lines are carved up because of train travel, right? These are the routes that people can go to.
But what starts to happen is, when people are migrating in significant numbers from the same town, they’re getting back the same people from those towns and they’re re-creating those communities in the cities. And so, when you look at African Americans in Chicago, they have such deep ties to Mississippi that there are situations where entire church congregations pick up and they leave together and they reopen in Chicago.
So I think that the story of migration is about disruption and continuity. And in the book and in my various engagements with migration history, I love the way that that creates a tension for people, because part of the pull of migration is to re-create yourself in a new context. But then the nostalgia and the homesickness sets in. And so, as girls are navigating these changes, they’re also in a community that’s trying to decide whether they want to leave the South behind entirely or if they actually miss the South, and it’s somewhere in the middle.
FLETCHER: The beginning of 1917, there’s race riots that follow certain patterns, so where you see migrants, like East St. Louis, and then eventually in 1919 we have Red Summer. Talk about that.
CHATELAIN: Well, I think it’s interesting that these violent eruptions are often contestations about public space. And I think that in this moment, right, we know the tensions about hyperpolicing, about access to public space, about access to resources, and this idea of who is really a citizen and who gets the benefit from it. Right? All this is happening during this time where you have these lines that are drawn between black and white, and any time there’s a slight crossing of it, or even an idea that someone might have crossed it, violence erupts. And you don’t have a police force that can protect citizens in those situations, so all hell breaks loose.
And so these violent uprisings are about beaches. They’re about parks. They’re about rumors of sexual relationships across the color line. It’s all about this idea about whose space is this and who gets to claim it and who owns it. And so these confrontations continue to be part of the northern urban landscape in ways that migrants don’t know how to make sense of because they were seeking freedom to begin with.
FLETCHER: Tell us about the book.
CHATELAIN: Oh, gosh. This book.
CHATELAIN: This book is about the experiences of girls and young women who are grappling with all of these issues in the Great Migration. And I start with these girls who write letters to Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender, and they say, send me a train ticket, give me a lead on a job, because there’s nothing for me here in the South. And it also includes parents who were saying to themselves, I want my daughter to be a child; I don’t want her working in white folks’ kitchens starting at the age of eight or nine, which was a common practice for girls, to spend the whole summer with a white family to train to be a domestic. They say, I don’t want that for my daughter. This is about families trying to understand what a childhood can be for a population where there are questions whether a black girl can actually be raped. There are questions–.
FLETCHER: Wait a minute. There’s a debate about–.
CHATELAIN: There’s a debate about this. So, in the late 19th century, a lot of white women’s civic organizations are trying to raise the age of sexual consent.
CHATELAIN: And among these conversations about how to create a protected category sexually, there’s a question of race. And the question is: if an age of consent law applies to a white girl, can it also apply to a black girl? And so in state legislatures throughout the South, people are entering expert testimony that in fact, of the Negro race, the girl becomes a woman at age nine, so she can’t be raped.
And one of the reasons why these laws are put in place: this is a labor issue. African-American women know that their daughters are going into households unattended at a very young age, and they want to have some type of legal recourse in case one of the men in the house attacks their daughters. Right?
CHATELAIN: So this is the context in which migration is also happening.
FLETCHER: The story of the Great Migration–and we were talking about this a little earlier when I–I was familiar with it for a long time. But in the ’90s there was this sort of short documentary I saw called Up South that focused on a migration from Mississippi to Chicago by this family. And after it was over, I said, wow, this sounds like Salvadorans, this sounds like Hondurans, this sounds like Haitians, this sounds like Dominicans. And what I’m hearing here resonates. It’s not like it–it just felt very, very in sync. And I was curious: when you were doing this research, did you have that same kind of a-ha moment?
CHATELAIN: Right. So a lot of the themes of this story are so applicable to the immigrant communities that are throughout the United States. You have these dire situations that are pulling people out of their places of birth and say, you know, we don’t know what’s on the other side, but something’s got to be better. You have this experience of putting children in schools where they don’t fit in. You know, Southern kids, when they go to Northern schools, the Northern black children make fun of them. They don’t fit in. They talk different, they dress different. And throughout the book, there’s all of these situations where girls are just trying to fit in, right? There’s one girl, she sends a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt and says, you know, Mrs. Roosevelt, just send me some clothes so I can fit in with these city kids; that’s all I want to do. You know? And so you have those tensions.
But you also have the tension of those generation of children who then adapt and adopt the practices of their new home, and the parents are upset about that, right? Things have changed.
And you also have a labor situation in which newcomers are easily exploited. They’re pit against other groups of people. Right? In Chicago during this period, scab labor is often black women, and they are susceptible to all sorts of racialized and gendered violence as a result of them trying to kind of fit into this economy, right? And they’re considered pliable workers. And so all of these things that–you know, these ridiculous debates about immigration that we currently have to endure, people were having the same ridiculous conversations about internal migration.
And I think at the end of the day what we see is what happens when groups of people become concerned about these issues, the way that they interact with newcomer communities. Sometimes they do it really well and reflectively. Sometimes they do a bad job ’cause it’s all about assimilation.
And, you know, one of the things that really resonated with me as I was finishing this book is what happens to migrant girls when they’re unaccompanied, when they don’t have parents anymore, their parents have died on the journey or after coming to Chicago, and I couldn’t help but think about the unaccompanied minors, right, a little kid by themselves in an unfamiliar territory, and what that requires us all to really think about, and how it challenges our current system of child protection, it challenges our relations with other nations, it challenges our ideas about what children can and cannot do. And so I think that, if anything, I hope this work really speaks to those communities that also go through the growing pains of an enormous amount of change that’s all undergirded by so much hope and so much possibility.
FLETCHER: Let me ask one more question. You talked about the similarities. What are the differences?
CHATELAIN: Mhm. Well, I mean, the first one is the language barrier. And this is one of the reasons why black migrants were considered such a great workforce: you didn’t have to worry about language barriers when you brought them into the factories in the North the way you did with recent immigrants.
The thing that I also think is interesting when we talk about, again, these ideas when people try to set up, you know, why can’t blacks do this, because immigrants can, the respect for the vote. Right? So we have populations in this country who are deeply disenfranchised. And then we have populations that get the vote the second that they come to this country. Right?
FLETCHER: That’s right.
CHATELAIN: And so I think those tensions about how does a critical mass of people who are so important to the economy and then are shut out from the political processes, like voting, right, that can help determine their destiny I think are some of the things that we can think about in terms of the differences about respect for voting and citizenship.
And I think that the critical difference is that we’re in a moment that I think that there is a respect for indigenous culture to an extent, because of the infrastructure of organizations that are working with people. I think that we are more or less past a point that groups can kind of find each other and try to create a critical mass. The question is: how do we have the policies and the political will to make sure that this critical mass is respected and treated fairly?
And so I think that–you know, I loved working on this project, I love the questions that it opens up, not just about immigration and migration, but policing, community, safety for all citizens. And I think it just demonstrates the power of history to always speak to the present.
FLETCHER: Dr. Marcia Chatelain, thank you very much for joining us for The Global African.
CHATELAIN: Thank you.
FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.
FLETCHER: The death of Freddie Gray spiked nationwide attention and shed yet more light on this country’s issue with police brutality. Folks took to the streets in protest, wanting to see an end to police violence.
However, while the six officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray have been charged, violence in the city has worsened. It has been a month since the uprisings and the murder toll, as well as the number of shootings is at an all-time high here in Baltimore. In the month of May alone, the city recorded 43 murders and 219 non-fatal shootings.
While much has been made of the police violence that triggered this wave of protest, the uprisings are surely the result of centuries of state-sponsored oppression. So here is the question: how do we move the fight for racial justice beyond the fight around police violence?
That’s the question that we’re going to explore in this segment of The Global African
Joined for this discussion with Robert “Bob” Moore, who served as the international vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1990 to 2008. He joined Local 1199 SEIU Baltimore’s organizing campaign in 1969 and, prior to that, served as the Maryland director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the period prior to the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Also joining us is Adam Jackson, the CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Adam is a West Baltimore native, a Towson University graduate. He was also a nationally ranked college debater and previously taught debate to high school and middle school students.
Welcome to The Global African.
ROBERT MOORE: Thank you.
JACKSON: Thank you for having me.
FLETCHER: Now, the issue that I’ve been wondering about is the extent to which this movement has the potential to morph into a broader racial and economic justice movement. Or do you think that it is destined to remain focused on the issue of racist violence and the police?
MOORE: Well, I would hope that it doesn’t stay there, that it does focus on these other issues, because–jobs and education, because that’s at the center of what’s mainly wrong, I think, the fact that people cannot really take care of themselves, don’t look for a great life, and so get caught up. And the police are just rampant on what they have been taught to do and believe about black people and crime.
JACKSON: Yeah, I guess in terms of when we look at the recent killings of unarmed black people over the past few years, I think that one thing that’s important to understand in context is that it’s not like this in the first time that black folks have been unjustly targeted by police and murdered. But what’s happened is that media outlets have figured out that there is an incentive for them covering the murder and death of black people and black death.
But I think that when people talk about Black Lives Matter as a thing, to me that’s media using the nice package of saying that there’s a–this is the first time this has happened, this is the first time this has become a major issue, when lynchings of black people in the early 1900s, that was already an issue, and now we just switched from lynchings to police killings of black people.
FLETCHER: You, Adam, said that we have to organize to gain power. Now, behind those words can mean–can be any kind of different strategy.
JACKSON: Well, I can speak to what Baltimore has been doing, the trends in Baltimore. The tendencies in Baltimore is that we latch on to institutions that already have power, influence, money, what have you, and then we expect to ascend in these institutions and then to gain power after we get into elected office or other positions of power within, you know, either agencies or organizations or what have you that are already established. And I think that’s a misguided and–it’s a misguided attempt at actually getting power, because the people who have the power or the institutions that have the power are not us. We don’t have it. They have it because we’re aspiring to be involved in what they have already set up.
And so I think that’s what happens in Baltimore. You have Democratic clubs, you have unions, you have churches, you have the current political infrastructure. People aspire to be a part of what’s already happening. And so, to me, I mean, there’s a lot of different methodologies and strategies.
But if you’re talking about other ways to organize to gain power, I know with LBS and the stuff that we do, from our perspective, when we first started, there weren’t any think tanks in Baltimore that focused on what black people needed. And so if we formed a think tank that did that, then that’s going to add something to–that’s going to add another tool to the toolbox that people can have access to.
But I think there are other areas of life, too, that people can do that with. I think that if you talk about food, food sustainability with Reverend Heber Brown, he is–he bought land and is growing food in West Baltimore and wants to create a food system for black people in West Baltimore and eventually going to West Baltimore. So that–to me, those are real simple things that people can do to build for self.
MOORE: Well, you know, in part I think Adam’s right, at least in the focus that you’ve got to build some kind of organization and movement that’s not directly tied to the institutions you want to change. But you also have to be able–have the ability to change those institutions. People do have power. It’s just not organized and focused. And people don’t vote because they don’t see that making much of a difference.
FLETCHER: Let me just express my frustration, not with the two of you, but with the situation. You know, I feel like the demands again and again are anemic, to be blunt, that when it comes to the extent of the catastrophe that’s facing black America, our demands, by and large, are anemic.
I’m trying to figure out, is it just me? Am I just becoming old and even more radical or what? Right? That’s what I’m trying to grapple with.
JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that the general problem, in response to your question about are people’s demands being anemic, I think that the general problem is that black people do not understand racism and white supremacy, what it is and how it works. And so when you don’t understand how structural systems of oppression work, then your demands reflect that. So people are talking about, you know, we demand that the police force stop killing black people. Or, you know, it’s like, well, but do you know what the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights is? Do you know what public policies have been put in place over around the United States that justifies police killings? ‘Cause to me it doesn’t mean that structures are broken; it means they are operating as designed. And so when you understand systems and how they are designed, then your demands can reflect that, ’cause I know here in Maryland in particular we had–we were in Annapolis advocating to at least amend the law enforcement bill of rights, which is a law that was put in place in the ’70s that justified them withholding information about the Freddie Gray case for at least a week or ten days. But to me that’s a structural thing. That is not–and that’s a very simple demand on a structure. But they weren’t trying to amend that law. And then, when Freddie Gray was killed, people saw how it applied.
And so, to me, that’s what people need to put their focus at is that what demands can we give that will demand transformation of structures and institutions, ’cause those are the things that are long-lasting. And I think we get so caught up in the personality of the Black Lives Matter stuff and justice for whoever’s killed by police this week that we don’t focus on what are the structures, the institutions, the things that are guiding these individual people to commit these acts of brutality.
So, to me, if we understand how white supremacy works on those ends, then we can actually transform how this country works. But if we don’t, then we’re going to be focusing on justice for whoever, send whoever to jail, instead of focusing on the writ-large institutional structures that justify it in the first place.
FLETCHER: And we’ll have to leave it at that. But thank you very much. Adam Jackson, Robert Moore, thanks very much for joining us for The Global African.
JACKSON: Thank you.
FLETCHER: And thanks for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.
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