Georgia Today: How The Key To Black Power May Lie In Reversing The Great Migration
During the Great Migration, six million Black Americans moved from the South up north. They wanted work opportunities and a respite from the sting of racist Jim Crow laws. Guest host Leah Fleming talks with New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who is pushing for a reversal of the Great Migration. He’s written about it in his new book, The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.
RELATED: 'We Need a Second Great Migration'
Leah Fleming: This is Georgia Today. I'm Leah Fleming, in for Steve Fennessy. Over the last few months, we've seen a seismic shift in Georgia as the state helped Democrats capture the White House and the U.S. Senate. A majority of those in Georgia who voted for Joe Biden were Black and the state elected its first African-American U.S. senator. According to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, the state's eligible voter population grew by about two million over a nearly 20-year period starting in 2000. Georgia is seeing more Black folks move to cities and towns, proving that the demographic shift is a thing.
One of the people riding that shift into Georgia is 28-year-old artist Tiara Ponce, who moved to Macon in 2015 from Brooklyn, N.Y. She's left her mark about Black pride in her community.
Tiara Ponce: They call me the hip-hop Rosa Parks.
Leah Fleming: Ponce gained that moniker because of her work to promote Black visual and performance artists focused on activism. Last summer, she made headlines when she created a box surrounding the base of a Confederate statue in downtown Macon during Juneteenth. People could paint how they felt on that box as part of a canvas for expressions of Black pride. She says it sent a powerful message to people who visited the city.
Tiara Ponce: When they get off the bridge and they come downtown, that’s what they see. So, it’s like "How do I treat a Black person? Oh, a Confederate statue, right in the downtown area." That’s pretty demeaning. You know, it gives a tone. But when you’re able to see artists, you know, that built walls around that, and people are saying, “Well, this is here, but this is how we really feel about each other. We love each other here in this city.” It sets a tone for tourists coming in.
Leah Fleming: Ponce says she hopes that kind of inclusivity leads to more Black people relocating to Georgia from other areas, like up North.
Tiara Ponce: Getting a chance to now have that communication across — across both, you know, boundaries, it’s kind of just to be like “POP!” to the bubble of segregation, to the bubble of demeaning the Black woman, to the bubble of “you don't have a voice in your city,” to the bubble of “how do we treat Black people.” The tone is here. I know people who are like, you know, “I want to move back to Macon.” Or people that — I have friends that live in the Bronx that are like, you know, “Hey, that city you moved to, Macon. I see they really care about art.”
Leah Fleming: The idea of Black folks relocating from the North to the South — in some cases, returning — is what New York Times columnist Charles Blow describes as a reverse of the Great Migration. And he wants to see it continue to play out all across the South. Blow is the author of the new book The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.
Charles, you know, I was looking through Twitter recently and I found this tweet from Jan. 1st, 2020, and it reads, “Waited till the New Year to share this. I'm moving to Atlanta. I'll keep my place in Brooklyn and come back often because my kids are in New York and I have some biz here. But ATL will be my primary residence. Move also related to my forthcoming book.”
Do you recognize this tweet, Charles?
Charles Blow: I recognize it. I haven’t — I haven’t seen it in a while, I haven’t thought about it in a while, but yes, I recognize it.
Leah Fleming: Yes, it is you. It is a tweet from you a year ago. So take me back to that moment that you decided to move to Georgia from New York City. What was going on in your life? What was going on in the world? What was going on in your mind to make you say, “I'm moving?”
Charles Blow: I completely believe in the theory of this book, which is that Black people should move back to the South.
And if I completely believe what I am writing, that I'm not putting out a thought exercise, that I'm not, you know, just trying to spark conversation, I — if I do believe it, then I need to be part of that reverse migration myself. That was clear to me. January of last year was the month that it made sense to do it for me, but it was clear to me that that was what I needed to do.
Leah Fleming: So, Charles, you write about this idea of reversing the Great Migration, but let's step back for a moment. What was the Great Migration?
Charles Blow: The — the Great Migration was the mass movement of African Americans, mostly from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest and West. It occurred in two stages. The first wave was around — roughly around the First World War, and the second wave began roughly around the time of the Second World War. People were largely driven to migrate because they were escaping terror and oppression in the South.
George Wallace: I draw the line in the dust and cast the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.
Charles Blow: And they were moving towards economic opportunity and more civic engagement and freedoms in the North, West and Midwest.
Leah Fleming: Charles, you know, my father was born in South Carolina, but as a baby, his siblings, my grandparents, along with so many others, they moved up north to, you know, the north Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they went to work in the steel mills. And, you know, they did it because there was jobs. That was good work. Race relations were supposedly better than the South, which wasn't saying much, but they actually were a part of the second great migration of the 1940s to about 1970. And then something happened along the way. That was 1973.
Newscast: A few months ago, its citizens elected a man they thought could best do the job as mayor of Atlanta. His name is Maynard Jackson and he's the city's first Black mayor.
Leah Fleming: And not just Atlanta, but the first Black mayor in the South.
Maynard Jackson: Pending reorganization of our city government will be designed to open wide the doors of City Hall to all Atlantans and to make our city government more responsive to people needs and people problems.
Leah Fleming: You started to see somewhat of a migration as people came back because the living was — as Black people came back — because the living was good. I mean, you could get a decent salary and you could certainly get a house for, you know, a good amount of money that you could actually afford, and a car. And, you know, you could do a lot more than you could do in the in the North.
And that brings me to your book. Your book is now really pushing Black people — young Black people — to come back home, so to speak. Come — come to the South from northern cities. What will be gained by them doing that?
Charles Blow: Well, political power.
Newscast: Democrats swept the Senate races in the traditionally red state of Georgia. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff's victories mean that the Democrats will take control of the Senate and this will have huge implications for the incoming president.
Charles Blow: This is the very first time in American history that Black people were the majority of coalition that elected a U.S. senator — in this case, two of them. This is the first time, at least since Reconstruction, that Black people were the majority of the coalition that delivered a state for a political candidate.
It is monumental what Black people have done here. And part of it, you know, part of it is obviously organizing — amazing organizing by a whole host of groups, including the amazing Stacey Abrams.
Stacey Abrams: I need you to show up. I need you to show out. I need you to bring your friends and your families, but I need you to bring your prayers and your spirit because we have a chance to save America, Georgia. And this isn't hyperbole. This is fact.
Charles Blow: I didn't know anyone this election cycle who did — had not voted early. In — in my friend groups here, everybody. Not only voted, took pictures in a line and took pictures of their little peach stamp to make sure that everybody knew they had voted. And that's a very different calculus than living in a place like New York where I always knew that New York was going to be blue, that the biggest choices that I had to make were for governor and mayor of the city and things further down ballot. But on the presidential line, I always knew that New York was going to be blue.
Since 1990, the Black population of Georgia has doubled from 1.7 million to three-point — over 3.4 million people. And many of them are young people, millennials with all that energy and all that organizing capability, all that sense of civic engagement that changes the entire political calculus of — of the state. And I believe we can change the entire political calculus of the entire region. And as Reverend Barber told me, if you change the South, you change America.
Newscast: We begin tonight with that breaking news, a horrific scene in Charlottesville, Va., a white nationalist rally that descended into deadly violence and chaos. The images just coming in: a car plowing into a crowd of demonstrators protesting against those white nationalists, a 32-year-old woman killed.
Leah Fleming: You know, when you talk about that and white terror and white supremacy that did spur protest and engagement, political engagement. And I've even heard you talk about the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer and liken them to a social justice Coachella. Tell me more.
Charles Blow: In the summer, when things were largely closed, when there were no schools and there were no — people were robbed of their rites of passages; there were no proms; you couldn't go to a concert or to a movie. You couldn't gather for a party.
There was one thing that you could do that people thought was righteous but was also congregational. You could get together and march to the street and have an atmosphere of a festival.
Protesters: (CHANTING) Blacks lives matter! Blacks lives matter!
Charles Blow: And that happens, but as soon as things started to reopen, people went back to school. The support for Black Lives Matter, which had surged during the summer among white people, slowly began to go back to its pre-summer levels.
Now you tell me what that is. Were people experiencing some sort of cabin fever racial justice moment because they wanted to get out of the house? Or were they truly committed to equality and egalitarianism? You know, maybe history will have to answer that question for us. But the data suggests that they walked away. That many of them walked away.
Leah Fleming: So what about white people? Do you do you worry about offending them when they are so proud to be allies? At least they were in that moment. You know, folks that say, “Yeah, I was out there, I actually, you know, got some pepper spray in my eyes and took a rubber bullet. And, you know, I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. What do you want from me?” What would you say?
Charles Blow: I don't center white people in this quest for Black liberation and Black equality, Black power. If you are experiencing some growth, I am happy for you, but do that for you. If you are coming out of a sense of racism, I'm happy for you. Do that for you. Racism is ignorant and no one should want to be ignorant. Black liberation cannot be contingent on your growth. This is not about you. Racism was designed in America by white people. A racial caste system was designed by white people. White people benefited from that racial caste system and still do.
Georgia creates, in this election cycle, a proven concept of what reverse migration can mean to Black power. What this plan says is that you don't have to appeal to white guilt. You don't have to figure out how you're going to get over white resistance. You don't have to ask for white permission or seek white participation. This is something you can do on your own. You can move and you can become politically engaged where you land. And that would be sufficient to change the contours of power in America, granting Black people more power in America, and to change the racial calculus of this country.
There are 1,200 majority Black cities and towns in America; 90% of them are in the South. And city after city, these major Black cities, many of them capital cities in the South, have these young, vibrant, revolutionary-thinking mayors. And just being part of that possibility in the South was invigorating and a major pull for me.
Leah Fleming: Just ahead, hype meets reality. What was it like for Charles when he moved to Atlanta? Did it live up to his expectations? This is Georgia Today.
Leah Fleming:] It's Georgia Today; I'm Leah Fleming. We're talking about Georgia experiencing a reverse of the Great Migration with more African Americans moving into the South. The late congressman John Lewis saw that up close in a November 2013 interview with GPB. The civil rights icon had this to say about the changing South.
John Lewis: When you travel through the South today, you see an unbelievable place in the making. And it's amazing to me when I go back to rural Alabama, where I grew up; I've traveled through the state of Georgia, other parts in the South. I feel like we're more than lucky. We are blessed to see all of these smart young people on the move and many of the people that are not so young. They're moving with change. They want to help the South redeem. They want to make the South a better place.
Leah Fleming: We just heard the late John Lewis talk about the possibilities for the South, and that's what's moving New York Times columnist Charles Blow to call for a reverse of the Great Migration. After living in New York for years, Charles returned to the South when he moved to Atlanta in January 2020. He writes about that in his new book, The Devil, You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.
The devil you know versus the devil you don't. That's actually from a proverb; is that where you got the title of this book from?
Charles Blow: Well, you know, I was playing on that because that proverb has also become kind of a old saw cliche in a way. And so I was — you know, there's a lot in a book where I say, you know, when Black people migrated to the North, they traded the devil they knew for the devil they didn't, only to come to realize the devil is the devil; that racism behaves the way racism behaves. And it is not geography-dependent. It is proximity and scale-dependent.
When, you know, northerners could look down their nose that their southern counterparts and say, “You are horrible people for maintaining this sense of injustice and equality,” they were doing so because there were very few Black people who lived near them.
Leah Fleming: Hmm.
Charles Blow: But the moment that large numbers of Black people moved into their neighborhoods and into their cities, they started to behave EXACTLY the same way that the South had behaved, using exactly the same tactics: massive housing and educational segregation, brutal police tactics — the entire gamut of tactics that the South had used, the northern cities begin to use.
Leah Fleming: So this great migration back to the South, is this a historical moment, you think?
Charles Blow: It can be if we want to make it one. There is — there is a — there's a history-making moment in what happened in Georgia, absolutely. We can replicate that experience across the South. That can be the history-making moment. You have to make a choice; you can't just complain. You can't just marched for the rest of your life. You have to figure out where you got to live your life and how you're going to exercise your political power. And I'm saying you should do it by moving back to the South.
Leah Fleming: What has your experience been like since you have migrated back to the South?
Charles Blow: It is interesting to be back in a space where Black majority and Black leadership is not even extraordinary. It's not even a thing that people think about or care about. It’s so routine. Or that a thriving Black middle class can exist and it's not an extraordinary thing.
Every day that you stay where you are, the possibility that Black agenda gets slimmer, not more likely. People keep trying to tell you that the racism’s going to die out and things are going to get easier. They are not. The Washington Post reported a very interesting statistic, which is: By 2040 — that's less than 20 years from now — 30% of the population will control 70 of the 100 Senate seats in America and that 30% of the population will be in states that are disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy and disproportionately rural. And that is because there is another migration happening right now, whether you know about it or not. And that is an urbanization migration. And it is largely fueled by young, college educated white people who are — who are reversing the trends of their parents, moving back into cities and back into large states rather than out of them into the suburbs. And so what you're going to do is, look, 70% of the population by 2040 will live in the 15 largest states. Those smaller states, disproportionately white, disproportionately rural, disproportionately elderly, are going to choose 70 of the 100 Senate seats.
Do you think that someone sent to the Senate by a population is disproportionately white, elderly and rural is going to vote for reparations? Do you think that that — those senators are going to vote for police reform?
Every election your chances of getting a Black agenda through are going to get slimmer unless you do something. Black people have to decide whether or not they want a piece of this pie. Do you want a piece of the state power pie? Do you want a shot at getting an agenda through? Do you want a shot at having that agenda enacted on a state level even if it cannot be enacted on a federal level?
Leah Fleming: My thanks to New York Times columnist Charles Blow. He's author of the book The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. Before we go, let's hear from another Georgian who returned to the state after being away for years. Harralyn Rawls left Atlanta in the 1980s for Tennessee, in part because of concerns over the Atlanta child murders.
Harralyn Rawls: We lived right there in the area of where all the stuff was happening, all the murders was happening. And we lived kind of in that central area. The Atlanta child murders was just too much for my family and a lot was going on financially. So the opportunity to came — presented itself to go to the city.
Leah Fleming: Not long after that, Rawls relocated to Detroit, where she remained for 26 years.
Harralyn Rawls: I've never liked the North. And when I say never, I mean, I literally would have anxiety attacks because I missed home. I mean, literally, I hated being cold. The winters were brutal and there was no hospitality there. It was like everybody was mean and angry and bitter.
Leah Fleming: So she had enough. After short stints back in Atlanta over the years, she finally relocated in 2014. And she's not the only one. Harralyn Rawls says the shift that she's seeing feels good as more African Americans are relocating to Georgia.
Harralyn Rawls: After this election, I'm excited to be back here. I'm excited we're going to make —change is coming. You know, there are people that I know have left Atlanta and are like, “Oh, my gosh, I'm not part of history anymore. I'm no longer part of it because I know I don't live there.” Well, guess what? Harralyn is part of it. We're here and we're excited.
Leah Fleming: I'm Leah Fleming in for Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Our producers are Sean Powers and Sam Bermas-Dawes. Thanks for listening.
Transcript: Khari J. Sampson