Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

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  • Pete Crangle

    Wow. That was awesome. Thank you Ms. Wilkerson and thank you Chris for such an outstanding conversation.

    Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at The Phillip’s Collection

  • So great, Chris! African-American history is such a fascinating story! Ray and Chuck–my guys!! So many of the black people I know have their hometown down South, and they go back there to see cousins, and they have mixed feelings about the place they love but had to leave. I’ll read this beautiful book.

  • That’s Michael Lydon, as in kid brother and author of the definitive biography of Ray Charles: Man and Music. “Truly a musician’s favorite,” as a fan writes in a 5-star Amazon review.

  • Do you ever ask “how can an entire generation be braver than I can ever hope to be?”

  • Potter

    This conversation brings tears from deep inside- the expressions of feeling from Isabel Wilkerson and Chris, Ms. Wilkerson’s stories, heartbreaking. Yet it is about, ultimately, with all the human loss and tragedy, how the human spirit can overcome and become liberated while in the process enriching us. I have often thought of the fact that the Irish, the Jews, the Italians and so many others, Europeans, with white skin color, could leave their identity more easily and melt, hide, mix, but not the black person.

    It’s so true about the kind of people that leave an intolerable situation- they are the ones that will fight for their rights and the rights of their fellow humans having suffered so under oppression. And of course also they are the same people, in their lower incarnations, that will turn around and oppress others mercilessly for the same reasons. It is about overcoming.

    Isabel Wilkerson has a beautiful way of telling the stories, a beautiful voice in which tell it, a heart and soul for the broader meaning and importance of this story which seems to have been neglected by historians. It would make a good series for TV, Ken Burns style.

    For me also it brings personal memories of growing up in New York City in the 1950’s with those folks that had come from the South, 10 people, extended family, living in a 2 room basement apartment ( if you can imagine), raising kids, doing elevator duty and janitorial tasks, in our Bronx apartment building. I grew up with all the others, including Jews who were still arriving through circuitous routes from war-torn Europe. I went through the public school system with a mix of kids from such migrants and immigrants. We could feel our parents prejudices too which could melt away for awhile when we got down to the serious business of sidewalk games.

    I have so often felt – how can we ever express our gratitude for the gifts we have been given by African-Americans in particular, the music especially, but not the least of which was the example of turning away from violence as they demanded their civil rights.

    Thank you.

    Pete Parrot Crangle– hello and thanks for the link.

  • Kate McShane

    One of the best interviews I’ve ever heard. I just bought the unabridged audio book. I wish it were read by Isabel Wilkerson. Her energy is wonderful.

  • Father Bruce

    Wonderful! Billy Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol! So sad.
    Wonderful stories. My grandmother arrived in Boston in the 1880’s,dying at age 30 leaving my dad age 5. she came from Roscommen.