“I didn’t know” is no longer an excuse. However, “I didn’t know” was the first phrase out of my mouth when I talked with my friend and colleague, Neil Davis, about his journey as an African-American. After attending last year’s interactive Partners for a Racism-Free Community annual forum sponsored by the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism, I realized how little I knew about the history of racism in America, so I purchased a few recommended books: The Help, Mudbound, The New Jim Crow, and The Warmth of Other Suns.
It was the last book that turned inside out the world in which I thought I grew up. Subtitled The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns chronicles the journey of 6 million African-Americans who fled from the south between 1915 and 1970 for a better life in northern and western cities.
My junior and senior high school history books taught me about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the ten confederate states that were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863. What I didn’t read in my textbooks or learn from my teachers is that although the federal government assumed authority over the south for 12 years during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, they left, assuming that blacks would now experience true freedom. Instead, slavery was replaced by sharecropping, southern states passed Jim Crow laws that restricted almost every aspect of daily life, and African-Americans lived in constant fear of lynching, unprovoked attacks, and unspeakable acts of terrorism and torture.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not truly “free” African-Americans at all, especially in the south. In fact, in 1896 the US Supreme Court ruled that “equal” but “separate” accommodations were constitutional. That ruling applied to trains, buses, movie theaters, restrooms, hotels, and restaurants. The process of legally prohibiting sanctioned segregation lasted well into the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
Unfortunately, I did not know anything about segregation even though I grew up during those years. I lived in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and other than seeing African-Americans when traveling into Philadelphia with my family, the only black person I knew was Carol Shepherd, a high school classmate who played center on our basketball team.
If only I had made an effort to know Carol better, I might have learned that Carol and her family were only one of millions of families that over decades found their way up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston, or along the Midwest train routes to Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit, or on the highways to California. I might have heard stories about an oppressive social and economic system in the south that denied higher education, exacted harsh penalties for breaking unknown segregation laws, and sucked the hope right out of blacks. I might have heard about relatives who were jailed, killed by the KKK, or who migrated safely to the north, only to urge Carol’s family to follow. I might have been more sensitive to a teenager who always stood out and knew that she was “other.”
How could I not have known that while I was growing up in a secure world, African-American families were still fleeing the south, risking all to experience a greater degree of freedom, dignity, and respect? The tipping point for the Great Migration was World War 1 because workers were desperately needed in the north to support the war effort. After the war, the flow north did not stop, however. 480,000 African Americans left during the great Depression, 1.6 million migrated in the 1940’s, and 1.4 million followed in the1950’s.
Neil Davis was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. started his movement with the bus boycott in Montgomery. In Birmingham, the most segregated city in the south, Neil vividly remembers the water fountains and lunch counters for whites only. Neil’s mother had traveled to the north in her younger days, so she was exposed to a different way of life for African-Americans. In 1963, having experienced enough of racism, segregation, and oppression, Neil’s mother moved to Detroit as a single mother with 5 young sons because an aunt was already living there. Detroit appealed to blacks because the steady jobs on the automobile assembly lines were a gateway to the middle class.
Those African-Americans who migrated to northern cities were tenacious, motivated, and resilient in claiming their freedom. They also had the same or slightly higher education than resident whites. Although discrimination was not as blatant or overt in the north, racial stereotyping and prejudice still made life far from easy.
Crowded tenement housing, exorbitant rents, price gouging, and underinvesting in black neighborhoods fostered unrest and even riots. African-American women competed with European immigrants for menial and domestic jobs, and white workers would often refuse to work with blacks. Housing segregation was a serious issue, and huge numbers of whites moved out of urban neighborhoods. The 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Report) summarized progress in racial equality, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The 2000 census showed that blacks made up 80% of the population of Detroit while across the Ford Expressway, the black population of Dearborn was 1%.
Wilkerson relates that on August 5, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march of 800 protesters against housing segregation through one of the poorest sections of Chicago. 1,000 police stood between the marchers and 4,000 whites. White residents sitting on front steps jeered at the marchers, calling them cannibals, savages, and worse. One placard said, “King would look good with a knife in his back.” Hecklers hurled rocks, eggs, bottles, and firecrackers, with one rock striking King in the head. Falling to the ground, King slowly picked himself up and said, “I have to do this to expose myself – to bring this hate into the open…. I have seen many demonstrations in the south. But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.” This was two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination.
The Great Migration ended around 1970, but decades later we still struggle with racial justice. Michigan ranks 3rd in the nation in reported hate crimes, 65% of which are racially motivated. African-Americans and Hispanics are discriminated against 25% of the time when they seek to buy a home or rent an apartment. African-American and Hispanic youth in Michigan are more than twice as likely as white youths to drop out of school. I am grateful for the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church, which was established in 1968 to “challenge and help the denomination’s agencies, institutions, annual (regional) conferences and congregations to achieve full, equal participation of its racial and ethnic minority constituencies in the total life and mission of the Church.”
Neil shared with me how easy it has been for him in the past to be angry at the systems and structures in our country that discriminate against ethnic minorities. He said, “We carry a heavy burden and have to temper ourselves in a lot of situations. We always have to be on guard.” I replied that when I was growing up at the same time Neil was, I just didn’t know. No one taught me about the history of racism in our country. Although Neil graciously said that he has learned not to be resentful of whites who were never exposed to African-Americans and racism, I cannot let myself off the hook. “I didn’t know” is no longer an excuse.
Martin King Jr. Day reminds us of our obligation to keep learning, growing, and becoming more aware of our own racist actions and attitudes. We are responsible for exposing our children and grandchildren to people from different cultures and backgrounds in order to build bridges of understanding, dialogue, and mutual respect. We are called to welcome people of all ethnicities into our churches, provide small group and Sunday school classes on racial inclusivity, and initiate mixed race congregational partnerships. We are also charged with advocating for racial diversity and inclusivity in all organizations and working toward structural changes that prevent institutional racism.
Neil, thank you for your friendship and your patience with me. You have taught me that racism is a disease that can be healed. I want to be healed. I need to be healed. “I didn’t know” is no longer an excuse.
We can embrace our diversity,
find strength in it, and prosper together,
or we can focus on our differences
and try to restrict access to resources
by members of ethnic and racial groups different from ours
and limit prosperity for all.
Andrew Young, 1996