The Warmth of Other Suns is the story about what is known as United States’s Great Migration. Between the years 1915 and 1970 almost 6 million blacks took the great risk to move from the south to the northern and western US. This marvelous (?) book tracks the journeys of three individuals to Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Robert Pershing, Ida Mae Gladney, and George Starling made this treacherous trek to hopeful freedom. Their success in finding that freedom is certainly mixed.
I was drawn to this book for many reasons, one of which is that my own parents made a parallel journey during that same time frame. They escaped the oppression of the Soviet Union and their journey brought them to Los Angeles, the same city that Robert Pershing sought for his freedom. But their stories are similar only to a point, the stories don’t end the same, and the hope that my parents experienced was not the same as the black experience.
That is why you should read this book. It exposes the ongoing challenge that we have in recovering from the evil we have imposed on the black lives who have lived in the US.The effects of that evil continue today.
MLK and Gunnar Myrdal: the Northern Paradox
“‘Negroes have continued to flee from behind the Cotton Curtain,’ King told a crowd… ‘but now they find that after years of indifference and exploitation, Chicago has not turned out to be the New Jerusalem.’
Yet the very thing that made black life hard in the North, the very nature of northern hostility – unwritten, mercurial, opaque, and eminently deniable – made it hard for King to nail down an obvious right-versus-wrong cause to protest.
Blacks in the North could already vote and sit at a lunch counter or anywhere they wanted on an elevated train. Yet they were hemmed in and isolated into two overcrowded sections of the city – the South Side and the West Side – restricted in the jobs they could hold and the mortgages they could get, their children attending segregated and inferior schools, not by edict as in the South but by circumstance in the North, with the results pretty much the same. The unequal living conditions produced the expected unequal results: blacks working long hours for overpriced flats, their children left unsupervised and open to gangs, the resulting rise in crime and drugs, with few people able to get out and the problems so complex as to make it impossible to identify a single cause or solution.
King was running headlong into what the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the Northern Paradox. In the North, Myrdal wrote, ‘almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs’ – that is by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed avoiding social interaction overall.
‘It is the culmination of all these personal discriminations,’ he continued, ‘which creates the color bar in the North, and, for the Negro, causes unusually severe unemployment, crowded housing conditions, crime, and vice. About this social process, the ordinary white Northerner keeps sublimely ignorant and unconcerned.'”
Your Church is Too White
In 1991 I started a new job as a pastor in a small rural church in the Inland Empire region of Southern California. My first attendance at our denomination’s General Conference in Portland of that year, the speaker Bob Logan told the crowd gathered there: “You are too white.”
Now Bob is a Church Growth consultant and Church planting expert. His comments were driven by church growth principles. The makeup of the US is rapidly changing, if you are to grow as a group of churches that meet that changing demographic you need to “get more color.” Being a good soldier, I took his words to heart, both the intended part and the unintended greater part. For 25 years I struggled to make the church more diverse, only to discover that I was fighting a battle that had roots in centuries long discrimination and it wasn’t as easy as invited black people to church or hiring an Hispanic pastor and starting an Hispanic service.
Our community was not interested in integration in our church or in our neighborhood. We existed 5 miles from a highly diverse community and another 15 miles from an ever more diverse area. These neighboring communities were a part of a secondary migration: blacks from South Central LA moved out to the Empire to escape the inner city. Our attitude was to keep our distance. We even started our own PONY Baseball league, in part because we didn’t like the neighboring community.
So, remember, the next time you say: “I’m not a racist” you have to ask the hard question: What have I done to open my eyes to the real and ongoing racism that is present in my decisions about where I will live, work, go to church, and the world to which I will expose my children? If 10 black families moved onto your block would you talk about moving? Would you hire a black pastor at your church? Would you attend a predominantly black church?
Read this book, and more like it. I have published another excerpt below…
Harvey Clark moves to Cicero
from The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
By midcentury, the receiving cities of the Great Migration strained under the weight of millions of black southerners trying to situate themselves as tens of thousands more alighted from Pontiacs and railroad platforms each week. In the spring of 1951, a colored bus driver and former army captain named Harvey Clark, and his wife, Johnetta, faced an impossible living situation.
It was a dilemma confronting Ida Mae and her family and just about every colored household up from the South. There was not enough housing to contain them, and the white neighborhoods bordering the black belt were barricading themselves further, not flinching at the use of violence to keep the walls in place.
Ida Mae and her family moved from flat to flat within those walls. Once they lived in an apartment over a funeral home, where little Eleanor played among the caskets and rode with the undertaker to pick up bodies. As it was, Chicago was trying to discourage the migration of any more colored people from the South. In 1950, city aldermen and housing officials proposed restricting 13,000 new public housing units to people who had lived in Chicago for two years. The rule would presumably affect colored migrants and foreign immigrants alike. But it was the colored people who were having the most trouble finding housing and most likely to seek out such an alternative. And it was they who were seen as needing to be controlled, as they had only to catch a train rather than cross an ocean to get there. Nothing had worked before at keeping the migrants out once the Migration began, and this new plan wouldn’t either. But it was a sign of the hostility facing people like Harvey Clark and Ida Mae, as white home owners stepped up pressure on the city to protect their neighborhoods.
“The don’t want the Negro who has just moved out of rural Dixie as their neighbor,” a city official told the Chicago Defender in a story that described what it called a “2-Year City Ban on Migrants.”
With close to half a million colored people overflowing the black belt by 1950, racial walls that had been “successfully defended for a generation,” in the words of historian Allan Spear, were facing imminent collapse, but not without a fight. Chicago found itself in the midst of “chronic urban guerilla warfare”that rivaled the city’s violent spasms at the start of the Migration, “when one racially motivated bombing or arson occurred every twenty days,” according to the historian Arnold Hirsch.
Harvey Clark was from Mississippi like Ida Mae and brought his family to Chicago in 1949 after serving in World War II. Now that they were in the big city, the couple and their two children were crammed into half of a two-room apartment. A family of five lived in the other half. Harvey Clark was paying fifty-six dollars a month for the privilege, up to fifty percent more than tenants in white neighborhoods paid for the same amount of space. One-room tenement life did not fit them at all. The husband and wife were college-educated, well-mannered, and looked like movie stars. The father had saved up for a piano for his eight-year-old daughter with the ringlets down her back but had not plat to put it. He had high aspirations for their six-year-old son, who was bright and whose dimples could have landed him in cereal commercials.
The Clarks felt they had to get out. By May of 1951, they finally found the perfect apartment. It had five rooms, was clean and modern, was closer to the bus terminal, and cost only sixty dollars a month. That came to four dollars a month more for five times more space. It was just a block over the Chicago line, at 6139 West Nineteenth Street, in the working-class suburb of Cicero. The Clarks couldn’t believe their good fortune.
Cicero was an all-white town on the southwest border of Chicago. It was known as the place Al Capone went to elude Chicago authorities back during Prohibition. The town was filled with first- and second-generation immigrants -Czech’s Slavs, Poles, Italians. Some had fled fascism and Stalinism, not unlike blacks fleeing oppression in the South, and were still getting established in the New World. They lived in frame cottages and worked the factories and slaughterhouses. They were miles from the black belt, isolated from it, and bent on keeping their town as it was.
That the Clarks turned there at all was an indication of how closed the options were for colored families looking for clean, spacious housing they could afford. The Clarks set the move-in date for the third week of June. The moving truck arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon. White protesters met them as the couple tried to unload the truck.
“Get out of Cicero,” the protesters told them, “and don’t come back.”
As the Clarks started to enter the building, the police stopped them at the door. The police took sides with the protesters and would not let the Clarks nor their furniture in.
“You should know better, ” the chief of police told them. “Get going. Get out of here fast. There will be no moving in that building.”
The Clarks, along with their rental agent, Charles Edwards, fled the scene.
“Don’t come back in town,”the chief reportedly told Edwards, “or you’ll get a bullet through you.”
The Clarks did not let that deter them but sued and won the right to occupy the apartment. The tried to move in again on July 11, 1951. This time, a hundred Cicero housewives and grandmothers in swing coats and Mamie Eisenhower hats showed up to heckle them. The couple managed to get their furniture in, but as the day wore on, the crowds grew larger and more agitated. A man from a white supremacy group called the White Circle League handed out flyers that said, KEEP CICERO WHITE. The Clarks fled.
A mob stormed the apartment and threw the families furniture out of a third-floor window as the crowds cheered below. The neighbors burned the couple’s marriage license and teh children’s baby pictures. They overturned the refrigerator and tore the stove and plumbing fixtures out of the wall. They tore up the carpet. They shattered the mirrors. They bashed in the toilet bowl. They ripped out the radiators. They smashed the piano Clark had worked overtime to buy for his daughter. And when they were done, they set the whole pile of the family’s belongings, now strewn on the ground below, on fire.
In an hour, the mob “destroyed what had taken nine years to acquire,” wrote the historian Stephen Grant Meyer of what happened that night.
The next day, a full-out riot was under way. the mob grew to four thousand by early evening as teenagers got out of school, husbands returned home from work, and all of them joined the housewives who had kept a daylong vigil in protest of the Clark’s arrival. They chanted, “Go, go, go,go.” They hurled rocks and bricks. They looted. Then they firebombed the whole building. The bombing gutted the twenty-unit building and forced even the white tenants out. The rioters overturned police cars and threw stones at firefighters who were trying to put out the blaze.
Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had to call in the National Guard, the first time the Guard had been summoned for a racial incident since the 1919 riots in the early years of the Migration. It took four hours for more than six hundred guardsmen, police officers, and sheriff’s deputies to beat back the mob that night and three more days for the rioting over the Clarks to subside. A total of 118 men were arrested in the riot. A Cook County grand jury failed to indict any of the rioters.
Town officials did not blame the mob for the riot but rather the people who, in their view, should never have rented the apartment to the Clarks in the first place. To make an example of such people, indictments were handed down against the rental agent, the owner of the apartment building, and others who had helped the Clarks on charges of inciting a riot. The indictments were later dropped. In spite of everything, the Clarks still felt they had a right to live in a city with good, affordable housing stock. But the racial hostility made it all but impossible to return.