The Southern Diaspora

How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America

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          It started on the very first day that the freshman Assemblyman arrived in Sacramento. Still exhilarated from his upset victory, Willie Brown was confident that as the first African American from San Francisco elected to the legislature he could make a difference. Always  sure of himself, he was perhaps less sure when it came to the rules of the California Assembly. There was one critical rule that year, 1965, and it was simple: Don’t mess with Big Daddy! Big Daddy was the 300-pound speaker of the Assembly, Jesse Unruh. The press called him a "political boss" and claimed he pulled more strings than the governor, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. In fact the governor and the speaker had mostly worked together. Over the previous six years they passed a remarkable package of legislation that had given the state strong civil rights laws, redesigned education, transportation, and water systems, and financed ambitious urban and poverty programs. The governor took most of the credit, Unruh through his ruthless control of the legislature, had done much of the heavy lifting. He did not mind being notorious, although he disliked the Big Daddy label, which had come from Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. What he disliked even more were legislators who did not know their place. He was not going to like Willie Brown.[i]  

        The Willie Brown-Jesse Unruh contest is one of the best-loved stories of recent California politics. A feud that turned ultimately into a succession story, it began on the first day of the 1965 session when Brown refused to support Unruh’s re-election to the speakership because Unruh had campaigned for Brown’s primary election opponent. Even the Republicans knew better than to hold out on Big Daddy. Unruh promptly retaliated, and over the next several years the Assembly understood that the very junior Brown and the very powerful Unruh were at war. Less obvious was the fact that a kind of mentorship had been going on almost from the start. Willie Brown was Jesse’s star student. Long before Big Daddy quit the legislature he had come to admire the younger man’s ability to play the game of power. Unruh at one point in 1967 offered a complement. “It’s a good thing you’re not white,” said Jesse. “Why’s that?” asked Willie. “Because if you were, you’d own the place.”[ii]  

         California journalists retell this story both because it unites two of the state’s most flamboyant political personalities and because it confirms one of the central fables of late twentieth century America, the great transformation in racial opportunities that has taken place since the 1960s. Willie Brown did go on to “own the place.”  Elected Speaker in 1981 with Unruh’s help, he served longer (15 years) with more ingenuity than any predecessor, including Big Daddy. Without missing a beat, Brown then moved up the political ladder, winning election as San Francisco’s mayor in 1996 and holding on to that office through thick and thin until term limits ended his reign in 2003.  The fact that Brown managed to out-do his mentor has served to make the story of their relationship all the more interesting. In Willie and Jesse California finds a comforting tale of racial progress, of the transformation from an old California where only whites like Jesse Unruh held power, to a new California that gives power to Willie Brown.  

         But the Jesse Unruh-Willie Brown succession story has another dimension that few Californians realize and that in some ways complicates the neat dichotomies of old and new, white and black. Jesse Unruh was not part of old California, anymore than Willie Brown was. In fact neither man was a Californian, neither had grown up there. And their backgrounds were curiously similar. Both were southerners. In fact both were Texans.  

         Unruh, whose parents named him after the train robber Jesse James, was the son of  north- Texas sharecroppers. Brown grew up in east Texas in circumstances that his biographer says may have been marginally more fortunate than Unruh’s. Brown’s family had a long history in the all-black town of Mineola and owned a nice home, even if money was short by the time he was born in 1934.  Willie was raised by his grandmother, aunts, and uncles while his mother lived in Dallas where she worked as a maid. His father, a waiter, left when Brown was four or five. Unruh was not born into poverty in 1922, but watched his family descend into it, as his father lost his job as a bank clerk, then tried sharecropping, managing to eke out only the barest of livings through much of the 1930s. Both Texans benefited from family commitments to education and each did well in school.  After briefly trying college, Unruh in 1941, at age eighteen, decided to hitchhike to Los Angeles thinking he would work in a defense plant. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Navy, spending the next three years in the lonely Aleutian Islands, making plans for his future. Those plans were fixed on Los Angeles and a college education. When the Navy let him go, he took his GI bill and enrolled at the University of Southern California, finding there his love for politics. Even before he graduated in 1948 he was planning a way into politics. [iii]  

         Willie Brown was entering high school that year, the segregated high school in Mineola. When he graduated three years later, he briefly enrolled in one of the colleges that Texas set aside for African Americans, Prairie View A&M near Houston. But another idea had been brewing: he would go to Stanford. It was an impossible dream of course. There was no money and Brown’s academic credentials would never pass muster at the elite school, but an uncle lived in San Francisco and 17 year-old Willie Brown figured that was pretty close. Stanford was on his mind in the summer of 1951 when he boarded the train heading west: “I came out with the intentions of going to Stanford and becoming a math professor.”[iv]  

That these two Texans should cross paths in California in the mid 1960s was not particularly surprising.  For more than half a century, Texans and other southerners had been leaving home by the hundreds of thousands, joining in a massive regional diaspora that had changed the face of race and politics and other dimensions of life in many corners of America. California felt the effects along with other western states, but the diaspora had also delivered its millions to the industrial states of the Midwest and Northeast. The numbers were enormous. By the end of the 1960s so many black southerners and white southerners had left the South that it was as if the entire population of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas had fled. Close to eleven million former southerners could be counted living outside the South in 1970. And that number is just a snapshot of population movements that over the course of the twentieth century involved millions more, not all of whom left the South permanently. Altogether more than 28 million southerners—black and white—participated in the southern diaspora.[v]  

         Aretha Franklin and Merle Haggard should have crossed paths in the late 1960s. The two entertainers stood atop their respective branches of popular music: she the reigning queen of soul, he the king of country music. Like Brown and Unruh, they had more in common than they would have realized. Both were children of the southern diaspora.  Franklin had grown up in Detroit after her family had moved there from Tennessee, Haggard in Bakersfield, California after his parents relocated from Oklahoma. Their music continued the symmetry. Aretha recorded "Respect” in 1967, a song that instantly became a ringing anthem of black pride. Almost in answer, Merle Haggard wrote  "Workin' Man Blues" and "Okie from Muskogee"--anthems of the angry and conservative white working class. Seemingly politically opposite, the two musicians, both part of the diaspora, symbolized some of the sharpest polarizations in American politics and culture by the end of the 1960s.[vi]  

         This book is about Brown and Unruh, Franklin and Haggard, Graham and another Franklin, Murray and Morris, and the millions of other diaspora southerners and their impacts on twentieth century America. It is the first historical study of the southern diaspora in its entirety. Historians have until now fragmented the subject along lines of race and time period. The migration of African Americans out of the South has been studied extensively, especially in its early phase during and after World War I. Less has been written about the more massive sequence of migration that began during World War II and a comprehensive treatment of the century-long story of black migration does not exist. Studies of white southerners on the move are more limited in number and most focus on particular segments of that migration. Those who have written about the movement of Appalachians and other southerners into northern cities pay little attention to the so-called Dust Bowl migration to California and visa versa. [ix]

   This book assembles and disassembles the various sequences of southern outmigration. African Americans and whites left the South for somewhat different reasons, moved in somewhat separate directions, and interacted on very different terms with the places they settled. In most respects we need to think in terms of two Great Migrations out of the South. But they were also related. There were similarities as well as differences in the motivations for leaving the South and certain parallels along with huge differences in what black and white southerners experienced and accomplished in the North and West.

            One of the strategies of this book involves the side-by-side comparison of the dual migrations. That stereoscopic view yields a host of new insights about each of the groups and their experiences. The chapters that follow will challenge many of the standard assumptions about the experiences of these former southerners. The image of white Southerners struggling through decades of hard living in "hillbilly ghettos" like Chicago's Uptown crumbles as we widen the frame of reference. So do some of the stories that emphasize disappointments and failures among blacks. Comparison of the community building and political activities of the two groups is equally productive. The political accomplishments of African Americans become all the more impressive when set next to the endeavors of the much more numerous white migrants.

             There is another reason for integrating these stories. In complicated ways the fate of white and black southerners outside their home region was often intertwined.  Especially that was the case in the two decades following World War II when sociology and journalism created powerful arguments that linked the two populations of former southerners. Moreover certain venues and projects drew upon southern culture in ways that sometimes pulled the two groups of expatriates into relationship. We see this in the postwar transformation of northern Protestantism and the separate but in some ways complementary influence of the evangelical churches that black migrants and white migrants built. Likewise we see it in the transformation of American popular music—in the country music that the white migrants helped spread as well as the multiple genres that black migrants pioneered. And in the reconstructions of northern politics-- the new forms of urban politics and racial liberalism that black migrants forged, and the new forms of white-working-class conservatism that white migrants helped shape. Even when their lives were separate, the two groups of former southerners were never out of touch.

            The book is not just about what the dual streams of former southerners experienced. More centrally it examines what their comings and goings, their struggles and creations, have meant for the United States over the course of the twentieth century. The southern diaspora is one of the missing links in historical understandings that recent century. As we will see, the great migrations of black and white southerners were instrumental in many of the key domestic transformations that the nation experienced, especially  reorganizations of race, religion, and region.  Some of the major stories of recent American history look very different when viewed through the lens of the southern diaspora.

            One story that looks different concerns black struggles for civil rights. It is widely understood that migration to the North was important to the battle for rights and respect, but the geography of black politics has rarely been carefully examined. Here we pay close attention to the ways that African American migrants were able to use the unique political capacities of the great cities where they settled and how that political influence translated into policy changes that transformed racial relations first in the North and West and then also in the South.

            The revival and spread of evangelical Protestantism (both black and white versions), the southernization of American popular music through the circulations of jazz, blues, hillbilly, and country music, new forms of black politics and racial liberalism and new forms of white supremacist and conservative politics were also part of the diaspora effect. Indeed key political realignments of various kinds pivoted on the two groups of southerners living outside their home region.

            The reformulation of regions is another legacy of the dual diaspora. Classical economists see migration as an equilibrium mechanism that over time is supposed to balance labor surpluses and lead to a convergence of standards and wages. This book pursues an argument that bears a superficial resemblance to that theory but undermines its logic. Migration in this analysis contributed to a convergence of many regional forms, not just economic but also political and cultural. Southerners outside the South participated in a sequence of historical transformations that changed the regions where they settled and also changed the South, bringing the racial, religious, and political institutions of each into closer relation. But no equilibrium theory can explain this convergence. These changes prove to be the work of actual people not abstract economic processes. Southern migrants of both races became agents of change, who used the opportunities of geography to alter the cultural and political landscape of the nation and all its regions.

Region is a fluid geographical concept in the American context. States are the sub national spaces recognized in the Constitution and equipped with clear boundaries and governmental institutions, while regions are spaces of uncertain integrity and confusing borders. That is true even of the South, long the most definite of American regions thanks to the history of spatialized conflict over slavery and race. "If you look at the whole South long enough," writes sociologist John Shelton Reed, "it goes all indistinct around the edges. If you continue to stare, even the middle can seem to melt and flow away." So scholars fight endlessly about how to bound the South and describe its core meanings and structures. Those struggles have their uses, but not to this study. We will define the South loosely and even inconsistently, recognizing that definitions can change over time and depend upon perspective. Is Florida a Southern state? Some would say yes at the start of the twentieth century, no after decades of migration from New York and Cuba. Are Baltimore and Washington D.C. southern cities? The argument here involves not only change over time but racial perspectives. What makes a space seem southern can differ for whites and blacks. For most purposes we will follow the Census Bureau definition of sixteen states and the District of Columbia (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia). But at other points we will reopen the issue of boundaries. [x]

Race is another concept that requires a note of clarification. White and black are never neat categories, even in a place like the South that did so much to inscribe them in law and where until late in the twentieth century low volumes of immigration minimized ethnic and religious diversity within the two dominant racial groups. Although there will be many generalized statements about white southerners and black southerners, more nuanced discussions at certain points will remind us that these are complicated population identities with mutable boundaries. In addition, it is important to note that not all southerners acknowledge either racial label and that southern-born Latinos and Native Americans also left the region during the diaspora period. Their experiences will be distinguished briefly at some points but unfortunately cannot be adequately examined in this study.

            The book proceeds thematically rather than chronologically—the usual strategy for a work of history. Each chapter is an essay that addresses a set of particular questions using a stereoscopic method that moves back and forth between the two groups of southerners. Stereoscopes set two similar but different images next to each other, tricking eyes and brain into fusing the images in a way that makes them three dimensional. Teasing out that third dimension is the goal of this book. Viewed in relation to each other, the black and white southern diasporas reveal the subject in entirely new ways.

Chapter 1 is an overview of the migration cycles and the changing economics and demography over the course of the twentieth century. It offers a new method for calculating migration volumes and shows the southern diaspora to have been numerically larger than previous scholars have understood.

 Chapter 2 surveys the public meanings surrounding the two exoduses and highlights the unique role that media institutions and social scientists played in shaping the expectations and interactions of southerners on the move. 

Chapter 3 answers questions about the economic experience of white and black southerners, dismantling the maladjustment paradigm that has been so prominent in previous scholarship while also showing the critical differences in the opportunity structure facing black and white southern migrants. 

Chapter 4 examines the communities that African Americans built in the major cities, resurrecting the label “Black Metropolis,” and mapping the new and powerful cultural apparatus of those communities. 

Chapter 5 examines the very different community formations of white southerners who spread out through suburbs and rural areas as well as big cities and struggled with confusing issues of social identity. The whites, too, developed cultural institutions of historical import. Both diaspora country music and a white diaspora literary community would reshape understandings of region and race.

 Chapter 6 explores the diaspora’s impact on American religion as both groups built Baptist and Pentecostal churches and helped revitalize and spread evangelical Protestantism, with important political as well as religious implications for America. 

Chapter 7 develops the issue of black political influence, demonstrating how important geography was to the initial phases of what ultimately becomes the civil rights movement. 

Chapter 8 brings the white migrants into the story of race, class, and regional transformations, exploring contributions on the one hand to white-working class conservatism and on the other hand to new formulations of white liberalism. 

Chapter 9 brings the diaspora to a close in the 1970s and 1980s and summarizes some of the major findings of the book.

            A short invocation before we begin. This book in its largest sense is a call for new thinking about internal migration, one of the seriously under analyzed issues of twentieth century American historiography. While the scholarship of earlier centuries focuses imaginatively on the figure of the Moving American and treats the westward migration of Euro-Americans as a pivotal historical force, historians of the most recent century sideline the subject of internal migration. Migration is treated as an important matter for African American history, but other population movements rarely enter into the calculations of those writing the history of the American twentieth century.[xi]

            If historians have failed to adequately address the subject, social scientists have not done much better. Migration studies, once a cutting edge enterprise for sociologists and economists, have been stuck for decades in dead ends and stale formulations. Most of the work cannot get beyond the question of why migrations happen, the old push-pull conundrum. Huge debates rage between advocates of neoclassical economic theory and dependency theory, both of which contemplate migration as a response to differential economic development. A third formulation, migration systems theory (a version of which is sometimes called exodus theory), moves beyond economic conditions, treating migration as a social movement and specifying institutional and social-cultural factors that enable mass relocations, but it too concentrates solely on the causes of migrations while ignoring their effects. All of these perspectives see moving people as subject to history but not its architects.[xii]

An old theory, dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, holds some promise. It conceives migration is a fundamental force of history. The social scientists who crafted it had in mind conquest migrations of the sort that rearranged European and Asian empires in millennia past, or that transformed the Americas when Europeans came swarming across the Atlantic.  But conquest may not be the only basis through which moving masses can redirect the flow of history. Infiltration can also be powerful. Certain peoples moving into certain places have managed to impart dramatic changes, achieving conquests of a sort without warfare and sometimes without major conflict. Can internal migrations have consequences of this sort? If so, how? Those are the questions animating this book. [xiii]

         Billy Graham and C.L. Franklin should also have met. Fellow Baptists, fellow evangelists, fellow southerners who had built great religious enterprises in the North, they understood that they had much in common. As ministers of the gospel they shared a mission. They would have prayed for their nation to heal its divisions and come together in a spiritual revival that would sweep away the hatreds of race. But even as their prayers might have joined, the meanings behind them would have been different. Graham, the most famous white Protestant leader of his day, a son of North Carolina who from his base in Minnesota had changed the face of evangelical Christianity, making it respectable where it had once seemed backward, preached a Christianity that was nine parts personal salvation. Franklin, a son of Mississippi  (and father of Aretha), had been for many years one of the nation's most famous black evangelists. His sermons, recorded at New Bethel Church in Detroit, were known and loved throughout black America. But unlike Graham's, Franklin’s preaching was not just about personal salvation. He also called for African Americans to stand together in the fight for rights and justice.[vii]

        Unlike these other pairs, Albert Murray and Willie Morris did know each other. Indeed the black writer and the white writer had spent New Years day 1967 together in Murray's Harlem apartment, drinking bourbon, talking politics, and thinking about their parallel and unparallel lives. Morris, the 32-year old editor of Harper's Magazine was just then completing a memoir, North Toward Home, filled with critical memories of Mississippi and of the conflicts that rattled the faith of a liberal white southerner living in New York City. He wanted Murray to write something for the magazine about his own life's journey from rural Alabama to literary Harlem. Murray would eventually take the assignment and turn it into memoir whose syncopated rhythms and perambulating conversations had little in common with North Toward Home. But the title, South to a Very Old Place, suggested something of the linked origins of the two books and the intertwined lives of their authors.[viii]

Willie Brown and Jesse Unruh. 


Brown helps Unruh count the votes as Jesse is re-elected Speaker of the California Assembly in 1968 (Sacramento Bee photo courtesy City of Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center) 

Aretha Franklin was the "Queen of Soul" when she appeared on the cover of Time May 28, 1968

Merle Haggard on the cover of Time May 6, 1974

Above: C.L Franklin in the 1960s. Below: Billy Graham on a Detroit visit in 1952 (Courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University)


Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison

Willie Morris


[i] The details of this story are from James Richardson, Willie Brown: A Biography (Berkeley, 1996

[ii] Ibid.144; California Political Almanac, 1995-1996 (Santa Barbara, CA, 1996), 219

[iii] Richardson, Willie Brown tells Unruh story 105-07. See also James R. Mills, A Disorderly House: The Brown-Unruh Years in Sacramento (Berkeley, 1987), 75-78.

[iv] Quoted in Richardson, Willie Brown  41.

[v] See chapter 1 figure 3-2 or Table 3-1 in Appendix A.

[vi] Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Aretha: From These Roots (New York, 1999); Merle Haggard with Peggy Russell, Sing Me Back Home: My Story (New York, 1981).

[vii] C.L. Franklin, Give Me this Mountain: Life History and Selected Sermons, edited by Jeff Todd Titon (Urbana, 1989); Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (Boston, 1979).

[viii] Willie Morris, North Toward Home (Boston, 1967) 387; Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place (New York, 1971).

[ix].  Joe William Trotter, Jr. surveys the historiography of the black migration in the introduction to The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (Bloomington, 1991), 1-21. Stewart E. Tolnay surveys the sociological  literature: “The African American ‘Great Migration’ and Beyond,” Annual Review of Sociology (2003), 209-33. Key studies include James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago, 1989); Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America (New York, 1991); Kimberley L. Phillips, AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-45 (Urban, 1999); Carole Marks, Farewell--We're Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration (Bloomington, 1989); Peter Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way: Southern Black’s Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-30 (Urbana, 1987); Daniel M. Johnson and Rex R. Campbell, Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, 1981), 32-42.
         Studies focused on white southerners include: Chad Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles (Urbana, 2000); Phillip J. Obermiller, Thomas E. Wagner, and E. Bruce Tucker eds, Appalachian Odyssey: Historical Perspectives on the Great Migration (Westport, 2000); James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York, 1989); William W. Philliber, Appalachian Migrants in Urban America: Cultural Conflict or Ethnic Group Formation? (New York, 1981); Walter Stein, California and the Dust Bowl Migration (Westport, 1973); Marsha L. Weisiger, Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933-1942 (Norman, OK, 1995).
      Jack Temple Kirby pointed the way towards an integrated analysis in "The Southern Exodus, 1910-1960: A Primer for Historians," Journal of Southern History 49(November, 1983), 585-600. Jacqueline Jones devotes two substantial chapters to the subject  in The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present (New York, 1992), 205-68.  J. Trent Alexander has an important dissertation comparing white and black southern migrant experiences in Cincinnati and Indianapolis: "Great Migrations: Race and Community in the Southern Exodus, 1917-1970” (Ph.D. diss. Carnegie Mellon University, 2001).  Sociologists have sometimes compared the two migrant groups and their reasons for leaving: Neil Fligstein, Going North: Migration of Blacks and Whites from the South, 1900-1950 (New York, 1981); Sam Joseph Dennis, African-American Exodus and White Migration, 1950-1970: A Comparative Analysis of Population Movements and their Relations to Labor and Race Relations (New York, 1989); Rashida Qureshi, "Dependency and Internal Migration: A Comparative Study of Outmigration from the Appalachian South and the Core South," (Ph.D. dissertation Kansas State University, 1996).

[x] John Shelton Reed, One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture (Baton Rouge, 1982), 4

[xi] Thirty years have passed since the publication of George W. Pierson's cultural analysis, The Moving American (New York, 1973). A few historians have kept their eyes on the subject, notably Walter Nugent, Into the West: The Story of its People (new York, 1999); Donna Gabaccia, “Two Great Migrations: American and Italian Southerners in Comparative Perspective” in The American South and the Italian Mezzorgiorno: Essays in Comparative History, Enrico Dal Lago and Rick Halpern, eds.,  (New York, 2002), 215-232.

[xii] Several theoretical schools are evaluated in Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller, The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World, 3rd Ed., (New York, 2003), 21-30; also Qureshi, "Dependency and Internal Migration," 3-15. Sam Joseph Dennis outlines  exodus theory in African-American Exodus and White Migration, 54-63, and it is elaborated in Carole Marks,  Farewell--We're Good and Gone; and Townsand Price-Spratlen, "African American Community Development and Migration Streams: Patterns of Change in 20th Century Metropolitan Migration" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1993).

[xiii] Robert Ezra Park surveyed this literature in "Human Migration and the Marginal Man," American Journal of Sociology, 33:6 (May 1928), 881-893. The writings of Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt reflect this understanding of migration as a fundamental force of history.