More on African Americans Voting with Their Feet

Below, Ilya discusses the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the 1940s and 50s as an example of poor people “voting with their feet.” It’s that, though it’s a bit more complicated than that, too, because federal New Deal policies set out to limit acreage farmed in the South (and thus a prime source of employment for African Americans) just as mechanization was started to also substantially affect southern agricultural employment. Meanwhile, New Deal policies also sought to undermine low wage southern industrial employment, which is why the federal minimum wage was set at a national scale even though wages (and cost of living) in the Deep South were one-third of those in the North. So there was a “push” and a “pull.” The pull was more freedom and economic opportunity in the North, the push being political and economic factors that left millions of southern blacks unemployed.

Ironically, given that Ilya’s interlocutor suggests that African Americans left the South for “good union jobs,” in fact those good union jobs, especially for unskilled workers, were beginning to disappear thanks to international competition just as black migration kicked into high gear, leaving many newly arrived residents without good employment prospects–though still far better off than in the South, where public assistance was scant and an unemployed black male could find himself harassed and arrested by the authorities. (And the unions, besides in many cases having a track record of discrimination, were harmful in another way–thanks to strict union seniority policies, newly arrived blacks were the first laid-off when layoffs occurred.) In a cruel twist of historical fate, however, the South soon became an economic boom region, while the inner cities to which blacks had fled went into severe decline.

Anyway, none of that’s to deny that blacks did often vote with their feet to go North. In fact, the first “Great Migration” to the North took place during World War I, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans took advantage of wartime labor shortages and a cutoff of immigration from Europe to seek their fortunes in the North. But that wasn’t the only time African Americans voted with their feet. During and before World War I, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled the rural south for southern urban centers, where Jim Crow still existed, but was significantly less oppressive. In the 1880s and 1890s, as many African Americans migrated across state boundaries within the South each decade as went North in the 1910s. They did so to escape droughts, violence, the denial of their political rights, and to seek economic opportunity. It didn’t always work out in the long-run–the Delta region of Mississippi went from being a magnet for African Americans to one of the most repressive regions in the country–but blacks were clearly better off overall with mobility than without, and even the threat of migration sometimes led to better treatment of those who remained. African-American migration was often aided by labor agents (known as “emigrant agents”) who provided them with information about jobs available elsewhere and gave them train tickets to get their. One labor agent, known as Peg-Leg Williams, claimed to have moved eighty thousand people by 1900. His activities led to legislation banning emigrant agents in Georgia, one of a series of such laws passed in the South to stifle black mobility. His conviction for violating the law was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1900, over, intriguingly, a silent dissent by Justice Harlan, who famously dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson. I discuss emigrant agents and black migration within the South in much more detail in this article and chapter 1 of my book, Only One Place of Redress.