The Northern Civil Rights Movement
The paragraphs that follow are excerpted from
The Southern Diaspora:
How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America
by James N. Gregory

Home ] About the Book ] Photos ] Bibliography ] tables ] Links ]

That the Southern Diaspora helped African Americans in their historic struggle for civil rights is widely understood. But how it did so has never been carefully explained.  Indeed since the 1960s scholars have written about black political development in ways that undervalue the role of the northern Black Metropolises. Partly it is because the southern civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s loom so large that there is a tendency to treat everything that came before as prologue. Partly it is because few of the historians and political scientists who have written on the subject have cared enough about political geography. The result is an oddly inconsistent narrative that always includes the point that the black diaspora brought with it voting rights and increased political visibility but fails to follow up in any consistent manner.

            This chapter does so, making the point that the Black Metropolises provided the base for a sequence of extremely important political developments that were not just prelude but precondition to the southern civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s. There was a particular regional dynamic behind the twentieth century drive for rights and equality, an almost Archimedean logic: African Americans had to leave the South in order to gain the leverage needed to lift it and the rest of the nation out of Jim Crow segregation....

It was once well understood that the modern civil rights movement began in the 1940s and that it took shape in the cities of the North. “When, in 1990 perhaps or the year 2000, men come to search for the truly decisive epoch in American race relations,” Lerone Bennett, Jr. wrote in his 1965 book Confrontation: Black and White “it seems likely that they will seize on the decade of the forties.” The Mississippi-born, Chicago-based contributing editor of Ebony magazine understood that the great events that had unfolded after 1954—the federal court decisions that had opened up the battle for school desegregation, the electrifying confrontations in the South and the mediagenic movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led, the congressional alliance that had, months before his book appeared, passed the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act –that all that rested upon a foundation that had been built in the Black Metropolises in the 1940s.

          Bennett, however, was wrong about the historiography of 1990. By that year the story of the 1940s Civil Rights movement had almost been lost as historians focused on the South and ignored what preceded it....

FEPC was not the only agenda of the northern civil rights movement. The other big fight was over urban space. The struggle to break down the walls of urban segregation, to open up commercial and recreational spaces, and especially to gain access to housing and residential space escalated through the 1940s and across the 1950s. It was for the most part an unglamorous, grassroots campaign: incremental, store by store, block by block, a complicated story of political combat with none of the grand victories and not much of the headline-grabbing attention that the southern desegregation campaigns achieved a decade or so later. But out of it came tactics and organizations that would be used in the southern efforts, and also measurable changes in the distribution of urban space. Slowly in the course of these struggles black people in the northern and western cities began to dismantle in-city systems of containment and began to share major portions of their cities, moving into jobs, consumer relations, and housing from which they had been forcefully excluded....


excerpts from  Ch 7 "Leveraging Civil Rights"



The Southern Diaspora: How The Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America is the first historical study of the Southern Diaspora in its entirety. Between 1900 and the 1970s, twenty million southerners migrated north and west. Weaving together for the first time the histories of these black and white migrants, James Gregory traces their paths and experiences in a comprehensive new study that demonstrates how this regional diaspora reshaped America by "southernizing" communities and transforming important cultural and political institutions.

Read the catalogue description and advance reviews.

Read the Preface and Introduction.