At the time of writing, more than 2500 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea without food or water. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have died – no one knows for certain. The Economist magazine says the 'callous and haphazard response' by governments of Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar shames the whole region.
Richer countries have not done much better. Australia has maintained a firm policy of refusing to accept boats in its waters. Its prime minister declines to deny that Australia has actually paid the smugglers to turn back. Refugees who are accepted are sent to an internment camp in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile many European countries are resisting the need to accept more migrants. Up to 2000 may have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. Fifty thousand have landed in Italy. Last week 6000 people were rescued and there are a reported 500,000 waiting on the Libyan coast. An even larger human tragedy looms with four million Syrians crowded into refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
One thing is certain: people who are desperate will go to any lengths to attain safety, freedom and hope for the future.
The current global crisis provides a particularly poignant context in which to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Based on 1200 interviews conducted over 15 years, Wilkerson documents through detailed and often deeply moving personal narratives the epic story of America’s Great Migration when, in the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the cotton fields, rice plantations and tobacco farms of the South for the urban centres of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Along with sharecroppers came skilled craftsmen, doctors, pastors, educators and musicians.
They were escaping a rigid and brutal race-based caste system where 'their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow.' Although formal slavery had ended, millions of black Americans were still in bondage as sharecroppers and could be exploited, imprisoned or beaten without recourse. In many cases they were running for their lives from a place where a careless look or word could mean death. Public lynching was common. Thousands would turn out to see victims hung, burned and tortured. Sometimes body parts were sold as souvenirs or even roasted and eaten. Small children sat on their fathers’ shoulders for a better view. These events often took place on a Sunday as a sort of grim religious ceremony with clergy encouraging the mobs.
The migrants 'left as though they were fleeing some curse,' wrote the scholar Emett J Scott. 'They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket…' They would often leave under cover of night to avoid detection as southern plantation owners would use any means to prevent their departure and the loss of cheap labour.
The Great Migration, which began during World War I with the demand for labour in northern factories and continued until the early 1970s, would become a turning point in history says Wilkerson. 'It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.'
Arriving in cold northern cities, migrants were exploited by employers who found that they could pay them lower wages and by landlords who charged them higher rents than white tenants. They also encountered fierce resistance from migrants from Central and Eastern Europe who, ironically, were themselves escaping persecution from Stalin and Hitler and who resented what they saw as competition for jobs. The response to the new arrivals was white flight from neighbourhoods and schools, bombings and burnings of homes, and riots in which the police often sided with the perpetrators.
In August 1966 Martin Luther King Jr came to march against housing segregation in a Chicago neighbourhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans and Italians. A crowd of 4000 had gathered to curse him; many waved Confederate flags. King was struck on the head by a rock. Twelve hundred police could not prevent the chaos that followed. King was shaken. 'I have seen many demonstrations in the South,' he said, 'but I have never seen anything so hostile and hateful as I’ve seen here today.'
The major receiving cities of the Great Migration became the most racially segregated in the nation. The effects are still evident today.
Despite daunting challenges, the courageous migrants and their descendants from the South transformed American culture and politics. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owen, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Sarena and Venus Williams, Condoleeza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Jimi Hendrix, Spike Lee and August Williams are just a few of the extraordinary Americans listed by Wilkerson whose parents or grandparents took part in the Great Migration. The three giants of jazz, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane were also children of migrants from the South.
The first black mayors of all the major receiving cities of the North and West were participants or sons of southerners looking for freedom and greater opportunity. Detroit’s black population went from 1.4 percent to 44 percent within a few decades. Other cities experienced similar demographic changes. Wilkerson notes that Franklin Roosevelt might not have won a third term in the White House without the greatly increased black vote in Chicago. African Americans who had been denied the vote by Democrats in the South cast their vote for a Democratic president.
Taking a broader perspective, Wilkerson remarks that as the Migration 'forced the country as whole to face its centuries-old demons, it also helped inspire and pressure other racial regimes such as that of South Africa, and thus was a gift to other parts of the world.'
In the US today, while fears about immigration are exploited for political purposes, any rational analysis confirms the benefit. The influx of newcomers has resulted in a median age that is almost 10 years below that of some European countries. Italy is called a 'dying country' by its health minister. The only factor keeping its population from actually falling is immigration. Germany’s population is shrinking so fast that it will be overtaken by Britain by 2040. The European Union calculates that by 2060 there will be just two workers for every person over 65, compared with four today.
The American experience should be an encouragement to Europe to welcome new arrivals – and hopefully to avoid some of the worst mistakes of the US. Migrants typically are determined, resourceful and hard working. They enrich, inspire and invigorate a nation.
Yes, there will be disruption and everyone will need to get accustomed to change. Old concepts of citizenship may give way to new realities. Robert Winder writes in Bloody Foreigners, an excellent review of Britain’s historical attitude to immigrants, 'All countries are having to grapple with tensions between their historical national self-imagery and the rich plurality of lifestyles they are obliged to accommodate.'
Rob Corcoran, author of 'Trustbuilding: an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility', has facilitated dialogue, reconciliation and partnerships among diverse and polarized racial, ethnic, and religious groups in an array of locales in Europe, South Africa, India, Australia and the United States. He is the national director of Initiatives of Change and founder of Hope in the Cities, which models honest conversation and sustained partnerships across traditional boundaries. He has lived with his family in Richmond for 30 years.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.