Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A migration and its consequences

Fill in the blanks -- go ahead, try it:

News of high paying jobs up in _____________ shot through every portion of _____________, carried from town to town, farm to farm, by labor recruiters, ... newspapers, word of mouth.... So they came ... The vast majority were working people, sharecroppers, lumber-camp hands, and maids. But they were looking for ... the promise of opportunity, the chance for something better. "I was reading the paper," remembered one migrant, "and it say where plumbers were making [good wages] and brick layers and plasterers too. ... Well that's more than I ever made in a regular job.... So I know I could make big money in _____________."

Most migrants didn't make those fabulous tradesmen's wages. [But] by _____________ standards, ... typical _____________ wages were nothing short of spectacular. ... No wonder _____________'s _____________ population shot up at an extraordinary rate....

Mexicans flooding across the U.S. border after NAFTA killed the farms at home, desparate to take any low wage job?

No. The first blank refers to Detroit, the home of the mushrooming auto industry in the 1920s. The migrants were African Americans from the U.S. South, flooding north for better wages.

No strangers to living in a white supremacist society, the migrants found themselves in a place where racist social structures presented new forms, dangers, and opportunities. Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age is a vivid, absorbing, horrifying and very human story of one of the clashes created by these new circumstances.

Like Boyle, I'll describe the story using the language of the period. A white man was killed by shots fired by Negroes. Detroit boiled with the passions unleashed by the case. People and socials forces mixed in unlikely combinations. Some of the characters included:
  • a proud, but somewhat timid, Negro doctor who had made the hard climb out of Southern poverty to professional success;
  • his Northern, middle class Negro wife who had grown up comfortably in white surroundings in a city not yet feeling overrun by Negro migrants to the factories;
  • a violent white working class mob, determined not to lose the shred of privilege conferred by living in an all white neighborhood;
  • Klu Klux Klan demagogues who saw the arrival of the Negro migrants as an opportunity to inflame hatreds;
  • white ethnic politicians who hoped to ally with the Negro migrants to overthrow the entrenched WASP upper class;
  • ambitious, entrepreneurial Negro activists who saw in the murder case a chance to raise funds to put the NAACP on a solid footing;
  • and the aging celebrity lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who made of the case an occasion to star once more in his own drama of righteous combat against injustice.
Simply, this is a terrific, griping story that gets to the guts of how this country, in one place and time, worked out -- but not through -- very American racial contradictions. Highly recommended.

African American migrants. Photo from an exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. The Buffalo institution shows the photo by permission of the Library of Congress.

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