ATLANTA — THE groundswell of protests over police brutality in the closing days of 2014, when people dropped to the marble floor of Grand Central Terminal and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, blocked Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and chanted “I Can’t Breathe” from Boston to Oakland, summoned ghosts not only of the marches of the civil rights era but of the larger forces that led to the arrival of so many African-Americans in the big cities of the North and West in the first place.
Dozens of cities would ultimately join in these demonstrations of discontent. But a map of the largest protests those first nights, and of the high-profile cases of police violence in recent months, lit up like a map of the Great Migration: New York, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles, Oakland, all of them the major receiving stations of the movement. These were the places to which generations of African-Americans fled to escape the state-sanctioned violence their descendants have now faced in the North and West.
In matters of racial injustice, the South has been the center of attention since before the time of the Civil War. But the North, with its shorter history of a mass black population, has only more recently dealt with the paradox of an enlightened ideal coexisting with racial disparity. The protests have become a referendum on the black condition since the Great Migration. “The protests are beginning to wake people up to the idea that the problems are not only there but have been obvious all along,” the historian Taylor Branch told me. “It feels like the South in the 1950s.”
It was because of the Great Migration — six million black Southerners fleeing Jim Crow from World War I to the 1970s — that African-Americans now live in every state of the union. They were seeking political asylum within their own country in what was, in effect, one of the nation’s largest and longest mass demonstrations against injustice. It was barely recognized for what it was at the time, arising as it did organically, rather than from a single leader, much like the protests today. Both migrants and protesters were pleading with the world to take notice that something was terribly wrong in the places where they lived.
In the early decades of the 20th century, a caste system ruled the South with such repression that every four days an African-American was lynched for some perceived breach or mundane accusation — having stolen 75 cents or made off with a mule. Those conditions forced most every black family to consider the best course of action to feel safe and free. “Where can we go,” a black woman in Alabama wrote in 1902, “to feel that security which other people feel?”
Generations later, police killings of African-Americans occur as often as twice a week for at times mundane infractions and at three times the rate as for whites, according to conservative estimates from recent studies. What happens in the moments after these encounters reveals a disregard for black life as disturbing as the shootings themselves. In the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old with a toy gun who was shot within seconds of a squad car’s arrival at a Cleveland park, new video released this week showed officers wrestling the boy’s 14-year-old sister to the ground and handcuffing her as she appeared to run toward her bleeding brother.
Such cases force black families again to consider how to safeguard their children and themselves from the violence they suffer at a disproportionate rate at the hands of authorities assigned to protect them. They are still giving a version of the same talk their ancestors gave their children back in the old country of the South, about answering yes, sir, and no, sir, and watching how they comport themselves around the upper caste and the police.
Now, as then, those kitchen table discussions signal a painful coming to terms with one’s tenuous condition in one’s own land. What was little understood at the time of the migration was that the refugees from the South shared the same dreams as the immigrants who stepped off the ships at Ellis Island, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. One of the few contemporaneous studies in the early years of the migration, published by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in 1922, surveyed Southern migrants to determine why they had come north and what they had hoped to find. The migrants responded:
“Freedom in voting and the conditions of the colored people here.”
“Freedom and chance to make a living.”
“Freedom and opportunity to acquire something.”
“Freedom of speech, right to live and work as other races.”
“Freedom of speech and action. Can live without fear, no Jim Crow.”
Those desires went little noticed. Indeed, it was resentment toward the Southerners’ arrival and obstacles to their entering the mainstream of Northern life that helped create the current conditions. Northern cities had had limited exposure to African-Americans. These cities were ill-prepared to absorb large numbers of asylum seekers who stood out from the rest of the population.
And so the newcomers were met with suspicion. Often recruited as strikebreakers, they were denied access to some unions and trades and were paid the lowest wages for the dirtiest work. They were roped off into overcrowded ghettos by means of redlining and periodic firebombings of homes purchased by black residents who breached the de facto wall of segregation.
Unlike the immigrants from Europe, they could not shield themselves from the assumptions about their heritage or blend into the majority just by Anglicizing their names or mastering the senator’s English. They stood out as the children of enslavement and Jim Crow, unable to escape the burden of a pained history.
It was a measure of how dire conditions were in the South that the Great Migration continued into the 1970s. When it began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it ended, nearly half of all African-Americans lived elsewhere.
Notably, however, high profile-cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution. Last month, as protests raged over the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio, Randall Kerrick, a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., made his first court appearance on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell was an unarmed black motorist who was shot 10 times as he sought help after a car accident. In September, Sean Groubert, a South Carolina state trooper, was fired after shooting an unarmed man, Levar Jones, during a traffic stop over a seatbelt violation. In a widely circulated video of the incident, Mr. Jones asked the trooper with humbling composure, “What did I do, sir?” Then: “Why did you shoot me?” He survived his injuries. The trooper was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery, a felony that carries a possible 20-year prison term.
he nation still has far to go, but this, at least, seems cause for hope. It suggests that the South, after decades of wrestling with its history, is now willing to face injustice head on. And it suggests that the North, after decades of insisting that it was fairer and more free, could eventually do the same.
It is not known what will come of the current upheaval in the North. The protests are a response to unprosecuted police brutality but are also a plea for recognition of African-Americans’ humanity. How can success be measured when the goals are so basic and enduring? History tells us that enough people acting together can have an impact beyond what could be imagined. The Great Migration changed American culture as we know it, produced jazz and Motown, playwrights and novelists, and transformed the social geography of most every city outside of the South. At the start of the movement, one of its chroniclers put the migrants’ aims in perspective. “If all of their dream does not come true,” The Chicago Defender newspaper wrote, “enough will come to pass to justify their actions.”
If the events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that, as much progress has been made over the generations, the challenges of color and tribe were not locked away in another century or confined to a single region but persist as a national problem and require the commitment of the entire nation to resolve