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TEDWomen 2017

Isabel Wilkerson: The Great Migration and the power of a single decision

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Sometimes, a single decision can change the course of history. Join journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson as she tells the story of the Great Migration, the outpouring of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North and West between World War I and the 1970s. This was the first time in American history that the lowest caste people signaled they had options and were willing to take them -- and the first time they had a chance to choose for themselves what they would do with their innate talents, Wilkerson explains. "These people, by their actions, were able to do what the powers that be, North and South, could not or would not do," she says. "They freed themselves."

- Journalist, author
The author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," the story of the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who uses narrative history to bring to light our shared humanity. Full bio

Imagine with me this scene.
00:12
It's a scene that played out
in nearly all of our families.
00:16
It's a scene in which a young person,
00:22
somewhere in our family tree,
00:26
somewhere in our lineage
00:29
had a heartbreaking decision to make.
00:31
It was a decision to leave all
that they had known.
00:35
And all of the people that they had loved
00:40
and to set out for a place far, far away
00:44
that they had never seen
00:48
in hopes that life might be better.
00:50
Migration is usually
a young person's endeavor.
00:53
It's the kind of thing that you do
when you're on the cusp of life.
00:59
And so, there is, in all of our families,
01:03
this young person
somewhere in our background.
01:07
That person is standing at a dock,
01:11
about to board a ship
01:14
that will cross the Atlantic
or the Pacific Ocean.
01:16
That person is loading up a truck
01:20
that will cross the Rio Grande.
01:24
Or that person is standing
01:27
at a railroad platform
01:30
about to board a train
that will cross rivers and mountains
01:32
out of the Jim Crow South
01:38
to what they hope
will be freedom in the North.
01:40
And there, with this young person
01:45
as they are about to board that ship,
01:50
that boat,
01:54
that truck, that train,
01:55
are the people who raised them.
01:58
Their mother, their father,
02:01
their aunt, their uncle,
their grandparents,
02:04
whoever it might have been
who had gotten them to this point.
02:08
Those older people
02:13
were not going to be able
to make the crossing with them.
02:14
And as they looked into the eyes
of the people who had raised them,
02:19
there was no guarantee
02:24
that they would ever see them alive again.
02:26
Remember, there was no Skype,
02:31
no e-mail, no cell phones
02:34
not even reliable long-distance
telephone service.
02:38
And even if there had been,
02:41
many of the people that they were leaving
did not even have telephones.
02:43
This was going to be a complete break
02:49
from all that they knew
02:52
and all of the people that they loved.
02:54
And the very next time
02:57
that they might hear anything
about the people who had raised them
02:59
might be a telegram saying,
"Your father has passed away."
03:04
Or, "Your mother is very, very ill.
03:11
You must return home quickly
if you are to see her alive again."
03:15
That is the magnitude of the sacrifice
03:21
that had to have happened
in nearly all of our families
03:25
just for us to be here.
03:30
A single decision
that changed the course of families
03:32
and lineages and countries and history
03:37
to the current day.
03:41
One of these migration streams
03:45
stands out in ways
that we may not realize.
03:47
It was called the Great Migration.
03:51
It was the outpouring
of six million African Americans
03:54
from the Jim Crow South
04:00
to the cities of the North and West,
04:02
from the time of World War I
until the 1970s.
04:05
It stands out because this
was the first time in American history
04:10
that American citizens
had to flee the land of their birth
04:16
just to be recognized as the citizens
that they had always been.
04:23
No other group of Americans
04:28
has had to act like immigrants
04:30
in order to be recognized as citizens.
04:34
So this great migration was not a move.
04:37
It was actually a seeking
of political asylum
04:43
within the borders of one's own country.
04:47
They were defecting a caste system
known as Jim Crow.
04:51
It was an artificial hierarchy
04:57
in which everything
that you could and could not do
04:59
was based upon what you looked like.
05:03
This caste system was so arcane
that it was actually against the law
05:07
for a black person and a white person
05:12
to merely play checkers
together in Birmingham.
05:15
You could go to jail
05:19
if you were caught playing checkers
with a person of a different race.
05:20
Someone must have seen
a black person and a white person
05:25
playing checkers with someone
in some town square.
05:30
And maybe the wrong person was winning
05:33
or they were having too good of a time,
05:37
but whatever it was that this person saw,
05:39
with this black person
and this white person playing checkers,
05:42
they felt the entire foundation
of Southern civilization was in peril.
05:45
And decided that it was worth
taking the time
05:50
to write this down as a law.
05:52
This caste system was so arcane
05:56
that in courtrooms throughout the South
there was actually a black Bible
05:58
and an altogether separate white Bible
06:04
to swear to tell the truth on in court.
06:07
The very word of God was segregated
06:12
in the caste system of the Jim Crow South.
06:15
The same sacred object
06:20
could not be touched
by hands of different races.
06:23
This artificial hierarchy,
06:28
because it goes against
human desires to be free,
06:31
required a tremendous amount
of violence to maintain.
06:37
Such that every four days,
somewhere in the American South,
06:42
every four days
an African American was lynched
06:47
for some perceived breach of protocol
in this caste system
06:50
in the decades leading up
to the start of the Great Migration.
06:54
This caste system had been put in place
for many, many reasons.
07:00
But one of them was to maintain
the economic order of the South,
07:05
which required not just
a supply of cheap labor
07:10
but an oversupply of cheap labor
to work at the will of the land.
07:14
This Great Migration began
when the North had a labor problem.
07:20
The North had a labor problem
07:26
because it had been relying
on cheap labor from Europe --
07:28
immigrants from Europe --
07:31
to work the factories and the foundries
and the steel mills.
07:32
But during World War I,
07:36
migration from Europe
came to a virtual halt.
07:38
And so the North had a labor problem.
07:42
And so the North decided to go
and find the cheapest labor in the land
07:44
which meant African Americans
in the South,
07:50
many of whom were not even being paid
for their hard work.
07:53
Many of them were working
07:57
for the right to live on the land
that they were farming.
07:58
They were sharecroppers
and not even being paid.
08:01
So they were ripe for recruitment.
08:04
But it turned out
08:07
that the South did not take kindly
to this poaching of its cheap labor.
08:09
The South actually did everything it could
to keep the people from leaving.
08:14
They would arrest people
from the railroad platforms.
08:19
Remember, putatively free
American citizens.
08:22
They would arrest them
from their train seats.
08:26
And when there were too many
people to arrest,
08:29
they would wave the train on through
08:32
so that people who had been hoping
08:34
and saving
08:37
and praying for the chance
to get to freedom
08:38
had to figure out:
How now will we get out?
08:41
And as they made their way
out of the South,
08:46
away from Jim Crow,
08:49
they followed three
beautifully predictable streams
08:52
as is the case in any migration
throughout human history.
08:55
In this particular case,
there were three streams.
09:00
One was the migration along the East Coast
09:03
from Florida, Georgia,
the Carolinas and Virginia
09:08
to Washington DC, to Philadelphia,
09:12
New Jersey, New York
and on up the East coast.
09:15
There was the Midwest stream,
09:19
which carried people
from Mississippi, Alabama,
09:20
Tennessee and Arkansas
09:24
to Chicago, to Detroit,
to Cleveland and the entire Midwest.
09:27
And then there was the West Coast stream,
09:31
which carried people
from Louisiana and Texas
09:34
out to California.
09:38
And when they really wanted to get away,
09:39
they went to Seattle.
09:42
And when they really, really
wanted to get away,
09:44
they went to Alaska,
09:47
the farthest possible point
within the borders of the United States
09:49
from Jim Crow South.
09:53
Before the Great Migration began,
09:57
90 percent of all African Americans
were living in the South.
10:00
Nearly held captive in the South.
10:04
But by the time
this Great Migration was over,
10:08
nearly half were living
all over the rest of the country.
10:11
So this ended up being
nearly a complete redistribution
10:14
of part of an entire people.
10:18
This Great Migration was the first time
in American history
10:23
that the lowest caste people
10:28
signaled that they had options
and were willing to take them.
10:31
That had not happened
in the three centuries
10:36
in which African Americans
had been on that soil at that time.
10:40
It had not happened
in 12 generations of enslavement
10:46
that preceded
nearly a century of Jim Crow.
10:51
How many "greats"
10:55
do you have to add
to the word "grandparent"
10:57
to begin to imagine how long
enslavement lasted in the United States?
11:01
Secondly, this Great Migration
was the first time in American history
11:08
that the lowest caste people
11:15
actually had a chance
to choose for themselves
11:17
what they would do
with their God-given talents
11:22
and where they would pursue them.
11:26
Think about those cotton fields
11:29
and those rice plantations
11:32
and those tobacco fields
11:34
and those sugar plantations.
11:36
On those sugar plantations,
11:39
and on those tobacco fields,
11:41
and on those rice plantations,
11:44
and on those cotton fields
11:46
were opera singers,
11:48
jazz musicians,
11:50
playwrights,
11:52
novelists,
11:54
surgeons,
11:56
attorneys,
11:57
accountants,
11:59
professors,
12:01
journalists.
12:03
And how do we know that?
12:04
We know that because that is
what they and their children
12:06
and now their grandchildren
and even great-grandchildren
12:11
have often chosen to become
12:15
once they had the chance
to choose for themselves
12:17
what they would do
with their God-given talents.
12:21
Without the Great Migration,
12:25
there might not have been
a Toni Morrison as we now know her to be.
12:27
Her parents were from Alabama
and from Georgia.
12:33
They migrated to Ohio,
12:36
where their daughter
would get to do something
12:38
that we all take for granted
at this point,
12:40
but which was against the law
and against protocol for African Americans
12:43
at the time that she would have been
growing up in the South,
12:48
had they stayed.
12:51
And that is just to walk into a library
12:52
and take out a library book.
12:55
Merely by making
the single decision to leave,
12:57
her parents assured that their daughter
would get access to books.
13:01
And if you're going to become
a Nobel laureate,
13:05
it helps to get a book now and then.
13:08
You know, it helps.
13:10
Music as we know it was reshaped
by the Great Migration.
13:13
As they came North,
they brought with them,
13:19
on their hearts and in their memories,
13:21
the music that had sustained
the ancestors --
13:24
the blues music, the spirituals
and the gospel music
13:27
that had sustained them
through the generations.
13:31
And they converted this music
into whole new genres of music.
13:34
And got the chance to record this music,
13:39
this new music that they were creating,
13:42
and to spread it throughout the world.
13:44
Without the Great Migration,
"Motown" would not have existed.
13:47
The founder, Berry Gordy,
his parents were from Georgia.
13:51
They migrated to Detroit.
13:54
And when he got to be a grown man,
he decided he wanted to go into music.
13:56
But he didn't have the wherewithal
to go all over the country
14:00
looking for the best talent,
14:03
and it turned out he didn't have to.
14:05
It turned out that there he was,
14:07
surrounded by children
of the Great Migration
14:09
whose parents had brought this music up
with them during the journey.
14:12
And among those children
were these three girls,
14:16
there was Mary Wilson,
14:20
Florence Ballard
14:23
and there was a third one:
14:25
Diana Ross.
14:27
We might not know Diana Ross' name
had there been no Great Migration.
14:29
Because like a lot of Americans
and a lot of human beings in general,
14:33
she might not have existed
because her parents might not have met.
14:37
Her mother was from Alabama,
14:40
father from West Virginia,
14:42
they migrated to Detroit, different years,
14:44
met, married, had her and her siblings,
14:48
and thus a legend was born.
14:51
Jazz was a creation
of the Great Migration.
14:54
And one of the greatest gifts
of the Great Migration.
14:58
Starting with Louis Armstrong,
who was born in Louisiana
15:02
and migrated on the Illinois
Central Railroad to Chicago,
15:06
where he got the chance
to build on the talent
15:10
that was within him all along.
15:13
Miles Davis.
15:16
His parents were from Arkansas.
15:17
They migrated to southern Illinois,
15:19
where he would get the chance
to build on the talents
15:22
that were within him all along
15:25
but which could have gone fallow
in the cotton country of Arkansas.
15:27
John Coltrane.
15:34
He migrated at the age of 16
15:36
from North Carolina to Philadelphia,
15:38
where, upon arrival in Philadelphia,
he got his first alto sax.
15:42
And there are lovers of jazz
who cannot imagine a world
15:47
without John Coltrane
having gotten a hold of a saxophone.
15:50
Thelonious Monk.
15:56
Michael Jackson.
15:58
Jesse Owens.
16:00
Prince.
16:01
August Wilson.
16:03
Richard Wright.
16:04
Ralph Ellison.
16:05
Michelle Obama.
16:07
These are all a few
of the millions of people
16:09
who were products
of the single decision to migrate.
16:15
The people of the Great Migration
16:20
met with tremendous
resistance in the North.
16:22
And they were not able to defeat
all social injustice.
16:25
But one person
16:31
added to another person,
16:33
added to another person,
16:35
multiplied by millions,
16:36
were able to become the advance guard
of the civil rights movement.
16:39
One person added to another person,
16:45
added to another person,
16:48
multiplied by millions,
16:50
acting on a single decision,
16:51
were able to change the region
that they had been forced to flee.
16:53
They had more power in leaving
17:00
than by staying.
17:03
By their actions,
17:06
these people who had absolutely nothing
17:08
were able to do what a president
of the United States,
17:11
Abraham Lincoln, was not able to do.
17:15
These people, by their actions,
17:19
were able to do
17:22
what the Emancipation
Proclamation could not do.
17:23
These people, by their actions,
17:28
were able to do what the powers that be,
17:31
North and South,
17:35
could not or would not do.
17:37
They freed themselves.
17:41
Thank you.
17:43
(Applause)
17:45
Thank you.
17:51
(Applause)
17:52

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About the speaker:

Isabel Wilkerson - Journalist, author
The author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," the story of the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who uses narrative history to bring to light our shared humanity.

Why you should listen

Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson devoted 15 years to the research and writing of The Warmth of Other Suns. She interviewed more than 1,200 people, unearthed archival works and gathered the voices of the famous and the unknown to tell the epic story of the Great Migration, one of the biggest underreported stories of the 20th century and one of the largest migrations in American history.

The book was named to more than 30 Best of the Year lists, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors, and made national news when President Obama chose it for summer reading in 2011. In 2012, the New York Times named The Warmth of Other Suns to its list of the best nonfiction books of all time.

Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of the New York Times, making her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American to win for individual reporting.

More profile about the speaker
Isabel Wilkerson | Speaker | TED.com