Let’s not fool ourselves,
we are far from the Promised Land,
both north and south.165
—DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
It was a hoax if you ask me.…166
They’re packed tight
into the buildings,
and can’t do anything,
not even dream of going North,
the way I do
when it gets rough.
—A COLORED MAN WHO NEVER
LEFT ALABAMA, QUOTED IN
The New York TimesIN 1967
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
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.
“They 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.”167
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 the historian Allan Spear, were facing imminent collapse, but not without a fight.168 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.169
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 no place 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—Czechs, 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.170 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.171 They 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 family’s furniture out of a third-floor window as the crowds cheered below.172 The neighbors burned the couple’s marriage license and the 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.173 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 Clarks’ 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 the 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.
Walter White, the longtime leader of the NAACP, kept close watch of the case. He had been challenging Jim Crow since the 1920s and compared the hatred he saw in the Cicero mob to the lynch mobs he had seen in the South. “It was appalling to see and listen to those who were but recently the targets of hate and deprivations,” he said, “who, beneficiaries of American opportunity, were as virulent as any Mississippian in their willingness to deny a place to live to a member of a race which had preceded them to America by many generations.”174
It was the middle of the Cold War, and the famous columnist and broadcaster of the day Walter Winchell weighed in on what he called the “bigoted idiots out there,” who “did as much for Stalin as though they had enlisted in the Red Army.”175
That fall, Governor Stevenson, who would go on to become the Democratic nominee for president the following year, told a newly convened state commission on human rights that housing segregation was putting pressure on the whole system. “This is the root of the Cicero affair,” the governor said, “the grim reality underlying the tension and violence that accompany the efforts of minority groups to break through the iron curtain.”176
The Cicero riot attracted worldwide attention. It was front-page news in Southeast Asia, made it into the Pakistan Observer, and was remarked upon in West Africa. “A resident of Accra wrote to the mayor of Cicero,” according to Hirsch, “protesting the mob’s ‘savagery’ and asking for an ‘apology to the civilized world.’ ”177
It was U.S. Attorney Otto Kerner whose job it was to prosecute the federal case against the Cicero officials accused of denying the Clarks their civil rights. Kerner’s name would later become linked to one of the most cited reports on race relations in this country. President Lyndon Johnson chose him to head a federal investigation into the racial disturbances of the 1960s. The commission’s findings, released in February 1968 as the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, would come to be known as the Kerner Report. Its recommendations would be revisited for decades as a measure of the country’s progress toward equality, its stark pronouncement invoked many times over: “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report said, “one black, one white—separate and unequal.”178
Well into the twentieth century, Cicero would remain synonymous with intolerance and corruption. It would come to be seen in the same light as other symbolic places, like Ocoee, Florida, or Forsyth County, Georgia, where many blacks dared not think of living and thought twice before even driving through, well into the 1990s. By then Cicero was racked by a series of scandals involving a mayor who would ultimately serve prison time on federal corruption charges. Even white immigrant families were leaving Cicero, ceding it to Mexican immigrants. In 2000, the U.S. Census found that, of Cicero’s population of 85,616, just one percent of the residents were black, nearly half a century after the riots that kept the Clarks from moving in.
It was an article of faith among many people in Chicago and other big cities that the arrival of colored people in an all-white neighborhood automatically lowered property values. That economic fear was helping propel the violent defense of white neighborhoods.
The fears were not unfounded, but often not for the reasons white residents were led to believe, sociologists, economists, and historians have found. And the misunderstanding of the larger forces at work and the scapegoating of colored migrants, those with the least power of all, made the violence all the more tragic.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the decline in property values and neighborhood prestige was a by-product of the fear and tension itself, sociologists found. The decline often began, they noted, in barely perceptible ways, before the first colored buyer moved in.
The instability of a white neighborhood under pressure from the very possibility of integration put the neighborhood into a kind of real estate purgatory. It set off a downward cycle of anticipation, in which worried whites no longer bought homes in white neighborhoods that might one day attract colored residents even if none lived there at the time. Rents and purchase prices were dropped “in a futile attempt to attract white residents,” as Hirsch put it. With prices falling and the neighborhood’s future uncertain, lenders refused to grant mortgages or made them more difficult to obtain. Panicked whites sold at low prices to salvage what equity they had left, giving the homeowners who remained little incentive to invest any further to keep up or improve their properties.
Thus many white neighborhoods began declining before colored residents even arrived, Hirsch noted. There emerged a perfect storm of nervous owners, falling prices, vacancies unfillable with white tenants or buyers, and a market of colored buyers who may not have been able to afford the neighborhood at first but now could with prices within their reach. The arrival of colored home buyers was often the final verdict on a neighborhood’s falling property value rather than the cause of it. Many colored people, already facing wage disparities, either could not have afforded a neighborhood on the rise or would not have been granted mortgages except by lenders and sellers with their backs against the wall. It was the falling home values that made it possible for colored people to move in at all.
The downward spiral created a vacuum that speculators could exploit for their own gain. They could scoop up properties in potentially unstable white neighborhoods and extract higher prices from colored people who were anxious to get in and were accustomed to being overcharged in the black belt.
“The panic peddler and the ‘respectable’ broker earned the greatest profits,” Hirsch wrote, “from the greatest degree of white desperation.”179
It seemed as if little had changed from the hostilities of the early years of the Migration, when colored tenants on Vincennes Avenue got the following notice: “We are going to blow these flats to hell and if you don’t want to go with them you had better move at once.180 Only one warning.” The letter writers carried out their threat. Three bombs exploded over the following two weeks.
Thirty years later, things were no better and may actually have been worse, as the black belt strained to hold the migrants still pouring in even as the borders with white neighborhoods were being more vigorously defended.
By the late 1950s, Ida Mae and George, now both working blue-collar jobs and their children now adults and with blue-collar jobs of their own, were dreaming of finding a place where they could pool their incomes and live together under one roof. But it would be some time before they were in a position to act or could find a safe and affordable place to go.
At the same time, an urban turf war had risen up around them. Bombings, shootings, riots, or threats greeted the arrival of nearly every new colored family in white-defended territory. The biggest standoffs came between the groups with the most in common, save race: the working-class white immigrants and the working-class black migrants, both with similar backgrounds and wanting the same thing—good jobs and a decent home for their families—but one group not wanting to be anywhere near the other and literally willing to fight to the death to keep the other out.
It was a chilling parallel to the war playing out at the very same time in the South, from the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 for refusing to give up a bus seat in Alabama to white troops blocking nine colored students in 1957 on their first day of school in Little Rock, Arkansas, after the Supreme Court said they had the right to enroll.
After World War II, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and other northern and western cities would witness a fitful migration of whites out of their urban strongholds. The far-out precincts and the inner-ring suburbs became sanctuaries for battle-weary whites seeking, with government incentives, to replicate the havens they once had in the cities.
One such suburb was Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit. By the mid-1950s, Dearborn was swelling with white refugees from the city. The suburb’s mayor, Orville Hubbard, told the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama that the whites had been “crowded out of Detroit by the colored people.”181 He was more than happy to welcome these new white residents and said, to the delight of southern editorialists, “These people are so anti-colored, much more than you in Alabama.”
Having already fled the cities, the newcomers were not going to let colored people into their new safehold. “Negroes can’t get in here,” Mayor Hubbard told the southerners. “Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than you do to a fire.”
Decades later, the message would still hang in the air, the calculus pretty much the same. By the end of the twentieth century, blacks would make up more than eighty percent of the population of Detroit. Just across the Ford Expressway, the black population of the suburb of Dearborn, the 2000 census found, was one percent.
NEW YORK, 1963
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
EVERY NIGHT, the violence came into George Starling’s living room. He had been watching the nightly news, the grainy black-and-white images of colored teenagers standing up to southern sheriffs, and he could see himself as a young man again, pressing against the barbed wall of the caste system in Florida. Sheriff’s deputies were pounding the young people with fire hoses and beating them with batons. This was the South he left. He wondered if it would ever change.
He was on the subway one morning heading to work at Pennsylvania Station in the midst of this southern assault. He got settled in his seat and opened the newspaper. “I looked at the front page,” he said, “and there’s all these black people down on the ground, and dogs jumping all over them and the cops standing over them with billies and beating on them down in Alabama on a march.”
Something welled up in George. Everything raced before him: the cheating foremen in the groves, his running for his life, the hangings and burnings, the little southern dog that would rather die than be black, the bomb going off on Christmas Day under the bed of a good man trying to bring justice to Florida. And then there was New York. Wide open and stifling at the same time. Yes, he was alive, but it was a slow death in a hard city. He was a baggage handler for all intents and purposes and would be no more than that no matter how much potential he had.
The city was pressing down on him and swallowing up his children. It never failed to remind him that he was seen as alien, the Yankee bartender taking the trouble to break the glass George had drunk from rather than use it again. There was no place else to run. And now the heat was turning up in the South again. Hosing and police dogs and people watching it as if it were a made-for-TV movie and the blacks just having to take it like they had for generations.
“I had the paper in front of my face,” he said. “And I got so mad. I dropped the paper down. And when I dropped the paper, I’m looking right in a white man’s face just sitting across from me. I had never seen the man before, didn’t know him from Adam, but he was white. And the hatred just surged up in me after looking at this thing in the paper. I just wanted to hurt somebody white. And I had to just really restrain myself to keep from just getting up. And that was the thing that went on during the whole campaign,” as he called the civil rights movement.
George got hold of himself. He pulled himself back from the edge. This thing was driving him crazy, and there was nothing he could do about it. The white man probably never had a clue. George would go about his job on the train, and no one would know the difference. But the despair did not leave him. He still had loved ones in the South. “I was worried about all my family and friends,” he said. “I had a lot of people there. My father and mother were living. My brother and all the kids that I went to school with and my wife’s people. There were a lot of people that I was concerned with.”
He saw the fear firsthand on the faces of colored passengers heading north and in his tense interactions with white southerners when he worked the rails going south. As bad as it was, and as bad as it had been all those decades before, some of the most boldfaced terrors of the civil rights movement were yet to come—the bombing deaths of four little girls just before a Sunday church service in Birmingham, the assassinations of civil rights workers, black and white, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner and Medgar Evers, the confrontation on a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Those would not come until Jim Crow’s fitful last hours.
George kept close contact with the people back home and, like many migrants in the North, sent money to support the protests because the migrants knew more than most anyone what the people back home were up against.
One day in 1962, in the middle of the civil rights movement, he heard something that set him off again. By civil rights standards it was a relatively small thing, and that is what drew him to it. For some reason nothing seemed as fate-tempting and blasphemous as someone setting fire to three defenseless colored churches, as in Georgia in September 1962. They were razed to the ground by white supremacists bent on keeping colored people from something as basic as signing up to vote. George was raised in the church and felt it hallowed and sanctified and the only safe place even the old slaveholders had dared not enter. It represented a breach of the most private, holy space.
He read in the New York Amsterdam News that there was a drive on to raise money to rebuild the churches.182 He started a collection himself. He went to the underpaid cooks and baggage men and redcaps and porters working the rails with him. He got fifty cents here and a dollar there from people like Walter Watkins from Washington, D.C., Ralph Covington from Brooklyn, Van Truett from the Bronx, G. T. Craig from Baltimore, J. E. Aaron of Brooklyn, and thirty-eight other co-workers. It took him four weeks to raise forty-one dollars. In January 1963, he walked over to the office of the Amsterdam News and handed a check in that amount to a rebuilding fund the paper was sponsoring.
With George, it was never the money when it came to these things but the sense of indignation over the injustice of it all and about doing something, anything, and getting other people as roused up about it as he was, just like he did back in the orange groves in Florida all those years ago. He had been in Harlem and working for the railroad for eighteen years now and knew he and his co-workers could raise more than a few dollars to help fight bigotry in the region they left.
The Amsterdam News soon closed the fund, figuring it had raised all it was going to get. The churches in Georgia had already begun rebuilding with donations that had come in from all over the country. But George hadn’t stopped collecting money. He kept a ledger of all the men who contributed and what they contributed, each fifty-cent and dollar increment from Percy Brown of Mount Vernon, Yace Brown of Queens, Adolph Thomas of Philadelphia. In March, George showed up again at the newspaper office with a check for forty-four dollars more.183
“I wanted to help in the only way I know,” he told the Amsterdam News.
LOS ANGELES, AUGUST 1961
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
ROBERT WAS IN REGULAR CONTACT with the folks back home, and in one of his phone calls to Monroe, his big brother Madison mentioned that he was due for some upcoming surgery, what seemed on the face of it to be fairly routine, the problem being his gallbladder. But Robert, a surgeon of many years now, knew that nothing involving surgery was routine and urged his brother to come out to California, where he could get the best of medical care. Robert would make all the arrangements, and Madison wouldn’t have to submit to the small-town, probably proficient, but still segregated medicine back in Louisiana.
“Come,” Robert told him. “I don’t want those white doctors in Monroe operating on you. You come out here so I’ll know what kind of care you’re getting.”
Madison had heard about the state-of-the-art facilities in Los Angeles. He knew his brother would see to it that he got the very best—that was just the way Robert was and he couldn’t help himself. So, although the trip out west would be taxing, he decided to leave his wife, Harriet, and son, Madison James, in Monroe and follow his little brother’s advice and come to L.A.
“He had confidence in me,” Robert said.
Robert set about planning the best medical care for his brother. He handpicked the surgeon—board-certified, it went without saying—who was one of his most trusted friends. On the day of the operation, Robert was there in his scrubs in the operating room, serving as second assistant and watching every move.
“And when he picked the knife up to make the incision,” Robert remembered, “I closed my eyes and flinched. I felt it. I couldn’t assist with that attitude. So the surgeon said, ‘Bob, you let Palmer Reed move up, and you step back so I can sponge.’ And I settled down.”
Robert stayed for the duration of the surgery. “I saw everything, and it was a flawless operation. It was beautiful. There was no mistake made. None.”
He felt proud and vindicated that he had insisted that his big brother come out to California and that things had gone so well. To Robert, it was just one more way to prove to the brother who had stayed in the South that he had made the right decision to migrate and that things really were better in California.
Robert was in a great mood and started joking with his brother that maybe he should recuperate at Robert’s house or with their sister, Gold, who by now Robert had lured to California, too.
“You wasting money in a private room,” Robert said. “Come to my house or go live with Gold.”
“Okay,” Madison said. “I’ll be ready to go. I just don’t feel good right now.”
Three or four days after surgery, Madison was still saying he didn’t feel good. He started sending out for antacids to relieve his abdominal pressure. But he wasn’t complaining.
“And he didn’t have any symptoms that would make us want to do anything special,” Robert later said. “We know there’s a certain amount of discomfort you gonna have. He was taking soft foods, and he was up. He was ambulated the next day after surgery. Temperature was flat. He was doing fine.”
After several more days, a nurse woke Robert up one morning.
“Dr. Foster, this is Miss Smart. I’m calling you about Dr. Madison Foster.”
“He went to the bathroom, Dr. Foster.”
Robert heard the gravity in her voice, the succinctness of her message, and knew what it meant, could read her shorthand. Madison must have strained himself and, in the straining, dislodged some plaque that could be anywhere in his body, in his heart, his lungs, his brain. There was no telling where it could be. Robert got straight to the point.
“Is he alive?”
The nurse told him, yes, and that they had called in several doctors to attend to him.
“Fine,” Robert said, suspecting that it wasn’t.
At once he began calling in the specialists he knew, and then he rushed to the hospital. Madison’s hospital room was full of doctors. They were surrounding his bedside, all working on him.
“And I’ll never forget the look in his eyes,” Robert said, his head down now. “And he’s looking at me. And that look in his eye was saying, ‘Is this it?’ Little Bubba, he called me. ‘Little Bub, is this it?’ He was so worried. And I’m crying and talking.”
Robert tried to comfort him.
“Don’t worry, Bubba,” Robert said. “It’s alright. It’s gonna be alright.”
Madison was a physician himself and knew that it wasn’t.
“He knew I was only reassuring him,” Robert would later say, “because why would I be crying?”
Robert got on the phone with Madison’s wife, Harriet, who was still awaiting word back in Monroe about how the gallbladder surgery had gone. “I gave her an hour-to-hour report,” he said. “And that went on all day.”
Instead of saving his brother in California, Robert would end up sending Madison back home in a casket, the people in Monroe clucking over Robert’s so-called Promised Land and what a shame it all was. Harriet would hold it against him for years. Madison had died of a blood clot; that had been the source of his discomfort, and nothing, it seemed, could have prevented it. Robert would have been the first to blame the doctors if it had happened in the South, but this had been in California, and he had chosen the surgeons and seen the operation with his own eyes. Robert would blame himself for as long as he lived, torture himself with “What would have happened if …,” and would never truly get over it.