It is probably slightly counterintuitive to discuss a book that one hasn’t read yet. But I have read the reviews of “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, along with an in depth article about this book in last week’s New Yorker. The subject matter, the great migration of black Americans from the South during the period of 1910-1970 is so compelling that, if only for the subject matter, the book is worthy of note.
But there is more, much more. “The Warmth of Other Suns” is not simply an historical narrative filled with facts and statistics. Rather, the book focuses on the real life stories of real people. And given that almost all Americans are descendants of immigrants, the story has to resonate in a very personal sense for so many of us regardless of ethnic heritage.
I read about the stories told in “Warmth” and I can feel the story of my grandparents and the grandparents of so many friends, classmates and colleagues. And one begins to grasp the courage, determination and perseverance of these men and women who left the awful and often bloody grasp of the South for the unknown possibility of a glimmer of opportunity in the North, Midwest and Far West regions of the United States.
Ms. Wilkerson makes it clear through her series of interviews and compilations of life stories, that fear and terror and violence were the motivating forces that drove these American immigrants elsewhere in their own country. According to statistics compiled for “Warmth” during the first three decades of the twentieth century a black American was lynched every four days. An amazing statistic because it cannot possibly be inclusive of all lynchings or beatings or other acts of terror perpetrated with virtual impunity. And these acts were typically not perpetrated by criminals and outlaws but rather, the actors were in the main upstanding and respected members of the community who considered themselves to be honorable men and women. (The authoritative book on lynching in the South, “Without Sanctuary”, is recommended on this painful subject)
“Offenses” that resulted in lynching included not only being accused of criminal acts such as stealing livestock or assaulting a white woman, impertinent language directed towards a white person or “reckless eyeballing” (looking a white person in the eye) could get a black man or woman killed. Other “offenses” included being a successful farmer or business owner or being the owner of desirable farmland and refusing a lowball offer to sell.
It was the terror of the day and the night that drove millions of black Americans from their homes to someplace else, anyplace else. More than the declining economy of the primarily rural South or the siren song of employment in the factories of the North and Midwest, fear and terror was their inspiration. A realization that injustice would be eternal in the South and the chance of living without fear of the torch or the noose in the middle of the night was enough for people to change their lives, and America, forever.
Absorbing and understanding this part of American history is important. The men and women who crowded onto trains and buses and trucks to come to Chicago and New York and Los Angeles also played a crucial role in the founding of the black middle class in this country. Speak to any African American doctor, corporate lawyer, investment banker or elected official about their lineage and long silent strains of the South can be heard.
And while absorbing this bit of history, check out the latest news reports that Haley Barbour, the Republican Governor of Mississippi has temerity to suggest that, at age 62, he is part of the “new generation” of the South that had gotten past segregation and discrimination directed against African Americans.
Amazing, because in 1964, when he was 16 years old, three civil rights works – Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman – were lynched in the “new” Mississippi. Its hard to see how you just get “past” that awful event. Amazing, because as a teenager Haley Barbour had to have been witness to federal troops having to escort James Meredith onto the campus of the University of Mississippi because of the violent threats from rioting white students. The same University of Mississippi that Barbour attended soon thereafter. How do you get “past” that?
Amazing, because to this day Mississippi is Ground Zero for the tenacious grasping of traditions of racism and racial discrimination in this country despite the progress that has taken place in this state. The pathologies experienced by the black community in Mississippi continue to this very day. How do you get “past” that?
And Governor Barbour would have us believe that this tremendous “change” has taken place because the Republican Party has taken the leadership in progressive and affirmative action in the South. And so he lives a lie and invites us to join him.
There was virtually no Republican Party in the South until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at which point white Democrats quit the party wholesale and moved to the Republican Party, where they have stayed ever since. They left the Democratic Party because of its support of civil rights and equal rights and human rights and it is simply a lie to suggest that the Republican Party came to life in the South for any reason other than the disgust and disappointment experienced by many white Democrats.
Haley Barbour is entitled to his opinions. He is not entitled to his own set of facts