The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Isabel Wilkerson Declares Great Migration a Success

A crowd of many creeds and many colors gathered last Saturday in Kaul Auditorium to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson talk about the Great Migration, the largest and most significant internal migration the United States has ever experienced in its history. Wilkerson was brought to Reed by the Multicultural Resource as part of its observation of Black History Month. Calling it “the greatest underreported story of the 20th century,” Wilkerson spoke of the deep implications the migration had not only for the people who lived through it, but for those of us who are still experiencing the cultural ripples left by six million African Americans having left their homes in the South for better lives elsewhere in the country.

From 1910 to 1970, multitudes left their homes in the South due to a unique combination of promising opportunities and grievous injustices, said Wikerson. She reported that while some of the unfairness was already common knowledge to a modern audience—segregated bathrooms, for example—other instances were less obvious, yet still uniquely inhumane. One law dictated who could go first at a four-way stop if there were both a black man and a white man stopped, while another prohibited interracial checkers in parks. So pervasive was the racism, Wilkerson argued, that it basically constituted a legalized “caste system,” and the Great Migration represented a last-ditch attempt on the part of Southern African Americans to “find political asylum” in safer places.

Despite this intensity of the racial hatred in the South, discrimination alone was not enough to drive African Americans from their homes, Wilkerson explained. While racism was not unique to the period preceding the Great Migration, the economic incentive for young black people to move to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast was. The Great Migration began as the United States was entering the First World War, and Wilkerson explained that the labor shortages caused by the war opened up new potential livelihoods for black people in the North that otherwise would not have existed. This new opportunity, combined with the “specific, rigid, and thick laws” that codified Southern racism, compelled many young African Americans to go to either the East Coast, West Coast, or the Midwest to start new lives away from the hateful environment in which they had been raised.

Wilkerson was unequivocal that this mass movement of people was both unprecedented and dramatically important to explaining and understanding how America came to be the place that it is today. She said that for decades in the South, all the vibrancy, creativity, intellect, and talent of African Americans had been swept under the rug, and the Great Migration represented the first time an entire generation of black people would get the chance to employ everything they had to offer. Even in the first generation of Great Migration children, the impact of this newfound freedom was dramatic and indelible. Among those listed as children of Great Migrators are John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Barry Gordy, Diana Ross, Thelonious Monk, August Wilson, and finally, Michael Jackson. It was clear immediately: The Great Migration had worked.

Wilkerson ended her talk with the simple reminder that despite the Great Migration’s status as a historical event, it still holds relevance for everyone living today. Southern African-American culture had mixed with other local cultures across America in such a way that we could all see ourselves as “living heirs to the sacrifice” made by the Great Migrators. Since the Migrators gave us the gift of their humanity simply by asserting power and freeing themselves from political and societal bondage, Wilkerson hoped that “so much more [could] be done.” She noted that the larger goals that inspired the Migrators were timeless goals that still hold true today, concluding, “It is our honor to make their dream come true.”

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