About 700 people came into the Rose Theater on Thursday, February 7, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson deliver the Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History for 2012-2013. She spoke on the “great migration” of blacks from the American South during the period 1915 to the 1970s. Her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, was the basis for her lecture.
As a preliminary to the lecture, the audience was treated to two choral pieces by Street Corner Harmonies, one of the ensembles of the Stax Music Academy, an institution that produces college-bound students from the Soulsville community and the greater Memphis area through music education. The first piece, “Middle Passage,” borrowed from the classic by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was restrained, yet soulful. But it hardly prepared the audience for the strikingly choreographed and vigorously performed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (and Why Not Every Man?),” which followed and received a standing ovation from the audience.
Ms. Wilkerson said that her book was about how far people are willing to go to improve their lives. During the period from 1915 to the 1970s approximately 6 million blacks left the rural South for urban areas of the nation, including the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, the first time that the lowest class of Americans signaled that they had options and took them. In effect, they were seeking political asylum within their own country, she said.
Although her book, based on more than 1,200 interviews gathered over fifteen years, followed in detail the migrations of three of those 6 million — one to each to the sections just mentioned — Ms. Wilkerson chose to center her lecture on the more general reasons for the migration and the results that were achieved.
The situation that provoked the migration, she said, was the caste system in the South under the Jim Crow laws, an elaborate system of behavior based solely on skin color. She remarked that although many older audiences actually lived through some part of the period of migration or remember the system from its persistence long after the migration, high school audiences find it difficult to believe that she is telling the truth about a judge in North Carolina suspending a trial until a “black Bible” could be found for swearing in a black witness, a law forbidding blacks and whites in Birmingham from playing checkers together, or another law forbidding black motorists from passing slow white motorists. Students in Hawaii suggested that if they could not pass, they would have honked the horn or tail-gated closely to encourage the white motorists to speed up; they were appalled when they were told such things were just “not done” either with impunity. When one remarked, “Well, then, I would just have left,” she explained that was exactly what her book was all about.
Enforcement of the caste system always implied coercion and often went to the point of violence. During the period 1889-1929 there was a lynching every four days on average, sometimes just for “acting like a white person” or for committing minor offenses such as stealing small sums. Ms. Wilkerson remarked that the system caused a loss to whites as well — “to hold people down, you have to get in the ditch with them.”
Ms. Wilkerson explained that a partial reason for the migration beginning about 1915 was that the caste system had always depended on an oversupply of black laborers, most of them sharecroppers who did not own land themselves. The outbreak of war in Europe caused immigration to fall off at the same time that northern factories needed more workers to create the goods to support the Allies and later the American forces. Black workers from the South were part of the answer to the problem. Planters resisted, trying to keep blacks in the South, sometimes waving trains through passenger stations so that blacks could not board them.
She described in detail one particular migration by an Alabama family, sharecroppers with nine children, the youngest of whom was so frail that they worried about his ability to survive work in the cotton fields. Long dreaming of moving to Cleveland (they even named the youngest James Cleveland -- they called him J.C.), they finally made the move. The teacher in Cleveland could not understand his dialect and thought his name was Jesse and eventually the family followed suit. This was Jesse Owens, who in 1936 won four gold medals in the Olympics with Adolph Hitler looking on.
Other than Owens in sports, Ms. Wilkerson mentioned several writers and musicians who emerged out of the migration: Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry in literature, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jacksons, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane in music. Indeed, she maintained, much of American culture was transformed through the migration. (Later in the lecture she said that she owed her own existence to the migration, for her parents would never have met otherwise.)
Ms. Wilkerson also emphasized the political importance of the migration, maintaining that it in time produced the civil rights movement, which was directed as much against reactions to blacks which had developed in northern states as against the southern caste system. The early migration had no acknowledged leaders, she said, but represented rather a people’s decision. Together the people accomplished what Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not do — "they freed themselves," Ms. Wilkerson asserted.
Toward the end of her lecture Ms. Wilkerson directed attention to the moment of departure for the migrants, usually a very poignant moment. The migrants were generally young people and their leaving the South was often a virtually complete break with the family, whom they might never see alive again. She reminded the audience that there was no Skype and no cell phones, only letters and expensive long-distance systems for the few who owned telephones of any sort, as well as expensive telegrams.
She ended with a quotation from Richard Wright, who left Natchez, Mississippi, in 1927 and passed through Memphis on his way to Chicago: “I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
During the question-and-answer period which followed the lecture, someone asked Ms. Wilkerson what had prompted her to write the book. She explained that everyone knew The Grapes of Wrath, which described a much smaller group of migrants. She felt that there ought to be a book like it about the “great migration,” so she determined to write it.
A former correspondent for the New York Times, Ms. Wilkerson was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, for reporting she did in 1994 when she was with the newspaper’s Chicago bureau. The Warmth of Other Suns won over ten major literary prizes, including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and has been named to over thirty periodicals' lists for “Best Books of the Year.”
The Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History has been made possible since 1980 by the Department of History through a bequest from Major Benjamin Schultze and his sister Ms Louise Fellows. They named a fund in honor of Miss Belle McWilliams, their aunt and guardian, “who for 40 years taught American History in the Memphis Public School system.” Besides the lecture series, the fund supports the Belle McWilliams Scholarships and other activities of the department.
For several years the lecture has been part of a series sponsored by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities. This year MOCH also recruited a large host of co-sponsors: the Program in African and African-American Studies, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, the Department of English, the Center for Research on Women, the Department of Journalism, and Facing History and Ourselves.
MOCH further worked with a huge number of community partners to publicize the event: African American Educators of Tomorrow, the African American Studies Program at Rhodes College, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Bridges Foundation, the Church Health Center, the Junior League of Memphis, Leadership Memphis, the Memphis Cotton Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, the National Society of Black Engineers and Technologists, St. Andrew AME Church, the Soulsville Foundation, the Spence Wilson Chair at Rhodes College, Teach for America, United Way of Memphis, and the West Tennessee Historical Society.
The evening with Ms. Wilkerson was a highlight of the 2012-2013 MOCH calendar, and it was a memorable evening for everyone who participated.