The Great Migration & the Identity Crisis of Southern White America Essay

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The Great Migration of Southern blacks northwards and out of the Southern states created two fundamental crises in the lives of white Southerners, that of economy and that of identity. The inability of the white South to internalize the rapidly changing realities of race relations, and to move beyond the paternalist worldview that it clung to, would compound and then exacerbate a very concrete crisis in the evisceration of the traditional labor supply of the South.

Unable and unwilling to recognize and embrace a new sense of identity in relation to African Americans, the white South would suffer the evaporation of the abundant supply of artificially cheap Negro labor upon which the Southern economy was dependent and become forced to confront the racist and inaccurate racial identities they had made the foundation of Southern society and order.

The documents collected by Eric Arnesen in Black Protest and the Great Migration bring to light how deeply alarming the Great Migration was in the minds of white Southerners, and how the crisis of identity it precipitated would act as herald and courier to the end of traditional Southern society and the rise of a New South. The decision of the black Southerner to leave the South constituted a crippling threat to the social and economic order of the entire region.

Developed over the decades following the end of the Reconstruction Era and based upon the legacy and ideals of the Antebellum era, the legitimacy of that order depended upon a set of assumptions, held nearly universally by white Southerners, about the nature of the Negro race and upon the racial identity that whites had constructed for themselves around assumptions. Included in Document 1 are several excerpts from white magazines and newspapers that display the white South’s total belief in the myth of the Negro as a second-class race, genetically predisposed to peonage in the Southern economy.

One such magazine, a nationally circulated white weekly named The Outlook published the opinion of a young, educated, black man on the topic of “negro migration” (62). He writes, in opposition to the migration of blacks to the North, “we understand the soil, the climate, and the life in the South; and being by nature a race of peaceful people, we prefer to remain in the South,” despite “the pinch of difficult living, crop failure, harsh treatment, and in some cases, indebtedness” (63).

The man continues to claim that, “ours being a backwards race” requiring others to take “responsibility for our care and treatment,” Southern blacks ought to remain “a cog in the South’s industrial machinery” and not invite “the criticism of our best friends” by seeking better opportunities (64). The claims made about the universal qualities of the southern Negro in the excerpt from The Outlook that Arnesen includes in Document 1 are precisely those that allowed whites to construct a racial identity that justified the social and economic order of the South.

Mary DeBardeleben, a white Southern racial liberal whose article The Negro Exodus: A Southern Woman’s View is also included in Document 1, explains that as the paternal guardian of the “good-natured, long-suffering” Negro most whites found it impossible understand the underlying causes of the Great Migration or even to acknowledge the dissatisfaction of the Negro (51). Perceptively, DeBardeleben claims that until the pocketbooks of white Southerners were threatened, the question of Negro discontentment had never been a topic of public discourse.

Previously, she writes, the assumption that “if he (the Negro) should happen to give us trouble we can cope with that and the law will uphold us in anything we do” had been unchallenged (51). However, in absenting themselves from the Southern economy, Southern blacks created an economic crisis which white society was unequipped to understand or manage without amending their understanding of their racial identity, and that of the Southern Negro.

The challenge that the Great Migration posed to the economy of the South was a great deal more apparent than the challenge it would pose to the central values of the white identity and society. Arnesen includes ample documentary evidence of the inability of Southern whites to accept the movement of blacks northwards as a manifestation of independent and rational thought well into the period of heaviest migration. Instead, being forced to confront the economic reality of black migration, whites embraced the theory that outside influences were responsible for the threat to their formerly abundant labor supply.

World War I presented an easily understood economic event upon which to lay blame. The underlying cause of the dramatic decline in their labor supply, whites reasoned, was the high wartime demand for labor in the North and the stirring up of dissatisfaction among black workers by Northern labor agents. The excerpts from white newspapers presented Document 1 display the vast popular acceptance of this explanation.

A 1916 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an influential white paper, states, “a steady drift of negroes has started Northward attracted by reports of big wages…due to the European war – the movement has reached immense proportions” (59). Rather than leaving the South out of concern for conditions at home the writer denounces the mass movement as “the work of labor agents from the North, who are luring negro labor from the South Atlantic states” and have “deceived the negroes and tricked and misled them” (59,60).

In response to the crisis the New Orleans Times-Picayune called for the creation of new protections against both the activities of labor agents operating in the South and the ability of blacks to migrate freely. This explanation and policy would become the official response of the governments of the Southern states, despite a clear agreement among blacks that the immediate cause for their desire to move away from the South was a financial calculation based on the state of the white controlled Southern economic system.

Reinforcing the economic decision of Negroes to absent themselves from the South was the basic rational of self-preservation; the specter of mob violence and the absence of the privileges and rights, such as equal treatment under the law, that would protect them from such were major concerns that sped migration northwards, not the interference of carpetbaggers and Northern labor activists. Evidence of this general consensus is in abundance in the publicly published writings of Southern blacks, from the barely literate to scholarly intellectuals, presented in Document 1.

In 1919 the Journal of Negro History published letters from Southern Negroes to the Chicago Defender, written in the early years of the Great Migration, inquiring about employment prospects in the North. One 1917 letter from Florida mentions “a rumour about the great work going on in the north,” the only inclusion of what might have been interpreted as the work of Northern radicals or labor agents in any of the letters, but continues to say that general opinion was distrustful, with “people saying that all we have been hearing was false” (65).

The writer professes to be a highly capable worker with a wife with “lots of references from the north and south” simply looking for gainful employment as he is out of work. Every letter in the Document 1 subset Documents: Letters of Negro Migrants gives as the reason for the writer’s search for employment in the North either the betterment of the condition of their family and a desire to “make the best I can out of life,” unemployment, or both (65).

The clear truth is that while Northern labor agents did operate in the South, documentation of the arrest of two agents of the Pennsylvania railroad for helping to transport Negroes north to work on the lines is contained in a 1916 article from the McDowell Times of West Virginia, they were in no way the cause of the exodus of blacks from the South (59). The influential black journalist W. E. B. Du Bois published in the monthly journal Crisis, which Arnesen notes, “reached a monthly audience numbering in the tens of thousands,” a thorough explanation of the Negro opinion, also included in Document 1 (46).

The testimony on the subject that Du Bois presents is unambiguous, proclaiming that in the South “the insurmountable barriers of caste unnecessarily fetter the opportunities to which every living soul is entitled, namely, a fair chance to earn an honest living and educate his children and be protected by the laws” (47). Put simply by another individual quoted by Du Bois, “the immediate occasion of the migration is…the opportunity in the North…the real causes are the conditions we have had to bear because there was no escape” (47).

Because the fundamental assumptions of the white South about the nature of the Negro race would not allow them to acknowledge the fact of the Negro’s personal rational agency, and that legal reality of this was now guaranteed by the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 which granted full rights of citizenship to African Americans, Southern whites clung harder to the racial identity they had developed.

This would lead them down a path of willful rejection of the new realities of race relations in the entire country directly to the American Civil Rights Movement, which would force those truths upon them and shatter the racial identity of the white South. Upon the end of World War I in November of 1918 the crisis of labor supply in the South did not abate, yet the view of the Southern white establishment that the exodus of their entirely contented black workforce was caused by the interference of radicals from without in the otherwise stable order of the South.

As the Governor of Florida Sidney J. Catts, expressed in a series of letters to William B. Wilson, the Secretary of Labor in the Cabinet of President Wilson, Southern whites attributed the stirrings of unrest in their society to “denunciatory editorials being published in the West and Extreme North, against the white people of the South, inflaming the minds of the negroes against the white people of Florida” (157).

In his letters he goes so far as to claim that the United States Department of Labor itself, as an appendage of the Northern controlled Federal Government, was responsible in part for the “inflamed condition of the minds of the negroes who are making a great many demands on the white people…which demands will not be granted,” due to its sending of Northern black agents of the Division of Negro Economics to the South (157).

These letters, included by Arnesen in Document 5, reveal the sustained absolute faith of Southern whites in their racial identity as a paternalist master race, the righteousness of their societal order based on castes that Du Bois’ interviewee bemoaned, and the assumption which Mary DeBardeleben wrote of that “the law will uphold anything we do” to cope with any trouble Negro unrest might cause to the order of the South (51).

In concluding one of his letters to the Secretary of Labor, Governor Catts declares that, “being a Southern born man I could look upon it (the issue of Negro unrest) from no other viewpoint than that of the white race, for this race will always dominate and control the South” (157). The whites of the South were at this time in near total control of the Governments of their states due to the Jim Crow laws enacted as the Democratic Party took back control of state governments in the wake of the withdrawal of troops from the South ending the Reconstruction period.

These certain beliefs would prompt these white state governments to enact ever more suppressive legislation and to employ brutal tactics of racial violence without fear of the law, for they controlled that too, in order to both minimize the ability of blacks to leave the labor supply, specifically of the cotton industry, and to dissuade black Southerners from attempting to receive their legal rights or make further demands of their White betters.

The worsening conditions of life as a Southern Negro as a result provided the penultimate push towards the eventual completion of the South’s crisis of identity. Fear of lynching, intimidation, and mob violence replaced economic concerns as the chief causes of Northward migration. As a white weekly journal of reform, Survey, included in Document 6, quoted in November, 1919, a Northern Negro interviewed about his or her willingness to return to the South exclaimed, “Haven’t you been hearing more reports of lynching of Negroes than you ever did in your life since the war” (186)? Likewise, outrage of Northern blacks and liberal whites at mistreatment and lynching without justice was growing, leading to dramatic efforts of growing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which would become driving forces of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Exemplary of the way that the backlash to the doctrine of terror that Southern white society employed to suppress their Negroes would expose the fragility of the old white order was the NAACP’s investigation and into the Elaine Arkansas Race Riots of 1919, summarized in a July 1923 article in the weekly African American newspaper the Pittsburg Courier included in Document 5.

The article states that in October 1919, “several white men and 250 colored men, women, and children were killed” during an extended riot and that while the disturbance was ongoing the NAACP sent assistant secretary Walter F. White to investigate (178). White reported to the organization and the Northern press his findings that “colored people had been held in peonage or perpetual debt slavery on the farms” revealed the perversion of justice that occurred when “after being tortured to make them give false evidence in court, 67 of them (the Negroes arrested following the riots) were railroaded into long prison terms and 12 colored men were sentenced to death” (178).

The NAACP mobilized a force of white and black lawyers to defend first the men sentenced to death and then those unjustly imprisoned, in 1923 winning a United States Supreme Court decision reversing the sentences of six of those facing the death penalty and then a Supreme Court of Arkansas decision freeing the remaining six (178). These decisions clearly disproved the white belief that “the law will uphold anything we do” (51).

Having proven at the highest level the oppressive conduct of the White South to be illegal, and therefore illegitimate, the white controlled society of the South showed its first major signs of its coming collapse under the weight of the civil rights movement that would fight and win future battles over the legality and legitimacy of oppression. By this time whites in the South recognized their desperate need to entice Negroes back to the Labor pool of the South to prevent the collapse of their business model, especially that of King Cotton.

In Document 6 Arnesen presents the published record of an organized campaign by Southern land owners, chambers of commerce, planters, milling and lumber companies, and other economically interested parties in cooperation with white newspapers to convince the “Southern raised Negroes” that had migrated North to return (182-183). In October 1919, the same month that the Elaine Massacre occurred, the Tampa Bay Morning Tribune published articles reporting of better wages and living conditions, and of “exceptional happiness, contentment and prosperity” among Negroes remaining in the South (183).

Notably one excerpt mentions the involvement in this campaign of “the federal bureau of labor and by organized labor to which had been referred a question of aiding the return of southern-born negroes to the South” (183) This representing the adoption of the tactics that years earlier the same parties had accused of causing the unrest and labor crisis of the South. The effort to bring migrant Negroes back failed and lynching and mob violence such as seen in Elaine Arkansas spurred a second wave of migration out of the South.

In 1920 the African American weekly the Buffalo American, reported that the “epidemic of intimidation and lynching” was propelling new “mighty exodus of the Negro on from the South” estimated to be moving “at the rate of more than 1,500 (Negroes) a day” (189). The continuation of the Great Migration through the 1920’s meant the total failure of Southern society to prevent the loss of the labor supply upon which it was economically dependent.

The economic crisis this created, the collapse of the cotton base of the Southern agrarian economy, would force the entire region, white and black, to face a different kind of identity crisis in the transformation into a primarily urban, industrial society. The legacy of the inability of the white South, during the economic crisis of the Great Migration, to adapt its basic sense of identity and fundamental assumptions about race and racial relations was the eventual destruction of their society by the American Civil Rights Movement’s achievement of the end of segregation in the 1960s.

That shattering end to the crisis of identity initiated by the Great Migration, and exacerbated over time by the ideologically driven backlash against the exodus of African Americans from the South and their attempts to achieve the rights entitled to them as full citizens of the United States of America, would mark the true demolition of a Southern society constructed nearly two centuries earlier in the Antebellum Era. The rubble will always remain, and the “New South” built atop the old will forever display the artifacts of the Jim Crow era, but no longer is the order of the American South erected upon a foundation of a genetic mandate for the enslavement of a whole race.

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