From racial division to class unity
|Conditions for African Americans changed little in the first four decades of the 20th century. Segregation, political disenfranchisement and a life overshadowed by terror and violence were the staples of African American lives, 70 percent of which were lived in the South. Beginning in the 1940s, however, powerful forces came together to restructure these relations and to affect the lives of black and white alike.
It is no exaggeration to say that the mechanical cotton picker transformed the South. In Clarksdale, Mississippi on October 2, 1944, a plantation owner named Howell Hopson, in partnership with International Harvester, the farm equipment manufacturer, field tested IH's mechanical cotton picker. In his book, The Promised Land, Nicholas Lehman describes how thousands came from miles around to witness the event. Looking like some prehistoric monster, "painted bright red, driving down the white rows of cotton," the mechanical picker "in an hour picked as much as a thousand pounds...each machine did the work of 50 people." To have his cotton picked by hand, Hopson paid $39 a bale; the picking machine did the same work for $5.26.
That's why the sharecropping system was soon discarded like yesterday's bad news. Almost overnight, millions of black and white sharecroppers were turned off the land, triggering an unprecedented migration not only from the South to the North, but from the rural areas to the cities and towns of the South.Thus the revolution in production that transformed the South transformed the North also. Not only African Americans but whites moved North, their numbers increased because white mineworkers were displaced by similar kinds of automation. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of those displaced were African American. Between 1910 and 1970, 6.5 million African Americans migrated North - 5 million left between 1940 and 1970. From 1940-50, Mississippi lost a quarter of its black population. Even more striking, the percentage of the African American population living in cities rose from 15.4 percent in 1900 to 35 percent in 1960 in the South, and from 7.2 percent to 38.2 percent in the North. In Chicago alone, African Americans went from 8.2 percent of the city's population in 1940 to 23.6 percent in 1960. "At one point," Lehman wrote, "more than 2000 black people were moving to Chicago every week." This massive uprooting of the former sharecroppers, particularly African Americans, provided an abundance of unskilled labor for Northern blast furnaces and factories.
The migrants who moved North did not leave behind discrimination or brutality, and certainly they did not witness an end to white supremacy. But conditions in the North, as a result of this migration and other world events, came together to have a profound impact on the psychology of African Americans as a people. The new industrial jobs did not come with the suffocating and deadly web of control that was life for African Americans in the rural South. No longer isolated and afraid out on some country road somewhere trying to get home, the former sharecroppers now lived protected by and drawing strength from thousands of other African Americans who lived in the same part of town, creating a vibrant cultural and social life that formed an identity far distant from any possible in the South, and forged powerful bonds within a growing urban community.
The aftermath of World War II also made its impact. African American soldiers fought for America and saw their comrades kill and die in the battle for democracy against Hitler's "master race." When they came home, they demanded the same democracy they had fought for. Such men paid a high price for their resistance. John Gunther reported in his book, Inside USA, that in the year or so after the war, "almost every victim of lynching has been a veteran." Inspiration came also from the many national liberation movements around the world. These almost exclusively "colored" movements seemed to be throwing off the yoke of white colonial oppression and forging their own destiny. The great African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry well known for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, wrote of beginning to see herself as part of a "world majority," rather than an "American minority." "I began to feel this kinship, the feeling from the past summed in 'aren't we all miserable' passing to a new and happier feeling, 'Aren't we all moving ahead!," she wrote. Equality seemed no longer to be an abstraction, but its possibility seemed within reach, even if there had to be a fight to gain it.
©2007 Speakers for a New America Books
Last updated August 27, 2007