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The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration…

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

by Nicholas Lemann

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484233,280 (4.16)3
A New York Times bestseller, the groundbreaking authoritative history of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A definitive book on American history, The Promised Land is also essential reading for educators and policymakers at both national and local levels.… (more)



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Bill Kauffman turns the meaning of lib ral and conservative upside down in [b:America First: Its History Culture and Politics|885267|Counterculture Green The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (CultureAmerica)|Andrew G. Kirk|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1179182237s/885267.jpg|870531]. He suggests that an examination of the history of isolationist and non-interventionist movements reveals them to be closely tied to the much maligned voice of the populists, a voice he says reveals the true nature of the" silent majority", a movement that owes much to George Washington and the founding fathers who desperately feared "foreign entanglements;" the messianic impulse to save the world being a creation of the Wall Street financiers and militarists who profited mightily from the wars ("a small war might take the people's minds off our economic problems," wrote one in 1898. Barely can one predict the impact of new inventions. Eli Whitney's cotton gin made possible the production of cheap cotton which led to the need for cheap labor to harvest it which led to an increased justification for slavery. The mass production of the cotton harvester in 1944, spurred on by high cotton prices and a shortage of labor, virtually eliminated the need for cheap labor and caused the migration of thousands of b lacks seeking jobs in the industrial north.

The impact of this movement and race relations in general are explored in Promised Land: The Great Black. Migration and How It Changed America by Nicholas Lemann. Labor supply in the south was intimately tie d to race. Segregatio n reinforced the share-cropper system created after the Civil War as a substitute for slavery. It prevented upward mobility of blacks, perpetuating cheap labor.

The sharecroppin system, devised by white plantation owners to trap their labor supply into a system of virtual peonage, left a society that by 1945 resembled a big city ghetto: high illegitimacy (with no AFDC), female-headed households, a miserable educational system, and a very high rate of violent crime. Home brewed-whiskey was "more physically perilous than crack cocaine is today."

In 1940, "rural south" was almost synonymous with "black, but by 1970 the euphemism had changed; now urban was synonymous with poor black.
By then race relations could no longer be ignored, except of course, by while, rural, Republicans to their discredit. The" decoupling of race from cotton [has influenced:] popular culture, presidential politics, urban geography, education, justice, [and:] social welfare." But urban liberals didn't get it either as they supported urban renewal which merely resulted in land developers and high-rise builders enriching their own pockets. Herbet Gans wrote in The Urban Villagers, "the low-income population was in effect subsidizing its own removal for the benefit of the wealthy."

Lemann's description of how the anti-poverty programs came to be is enlightening. Ironically, JFK had not formulated any serious plans for eliminating poverty, but he had several aides, including Walter Heller, who were captivated by the idea. After Kennedy's death, his supporters made a conscious effort to paint Kennedy as being much more liberal than he really was. Johnson visualized himself as more liberal than Kennedy, and he wanted an issue to call his own to carry him through the next presidential election. Many of the antipoverty plans made him uncomfortable because, being a pragmatist, he was looking for measurable solutions and programs that worked. The plans that were being foisted on him as Kennedy's legacy had not been tried; they were mere academic speculations. Yet he was forced to adopt many of them or look like he was abandoning the martyred president's legacy, something he politically could not afford to do. The assumption behind the war on poverty was that poverty was cultural in nature. This idea came from social anthropologists, and it meant that if parents could not acculturate their children to the bourgeois society, then government could. The rural migrants to the urban north fit the mold perfectly as guinea pigs for the great experiment.

The other side of the argument maintained that poverty was political and resulted from a lack of political power. The Irish, for example, struggled into the middle class by gaining control of the political structure. These two ideologies were to clash constantly. And the problem was that any program that offended white middle class sensibilities was doomed to failure from the start.

Contrary to current popular opinion, the War on Poverty, was not a failure. The huge numbers of jobs that were created to implement the programs went primarily to blacks and that, in effect, created a black middle class that promptly moved out of the ghettos leaving them in much worse shape because the motivated folks who got the jobs had provided the strength and structure to those communities.

Lemann discusses the failure of housing projects at some length. Apparently they have worked quite well in areas where the original rules and goals were adhered to, i.e. tenants were carefully screened using several criteria including the requirement that the tenant have a job and be part of a two parent household. In Chicago, those rules were discarded for two reasons: the ACLU filed suit claiming the rules were arbitrarily discriminatory (surely true, but another example of good intentions causing unintended results) and the lack of people meeting the criteria. It became essential for the politicians to prove the projects were a success but they were not filling the buildings fast enough so screening went out the window.

Lemann's analysis of the political maneuvering that went on in Washington and his descriptions of the hidden and not-so-secret agendas of all the groups is fascinating and ought to be required reading for everyone.
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  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Little lives rock big boats in Lemann's twofold drama of Pres. Johnson's Great Society venture. Act 1 introduces us to black victims of white progress in the sharecropper South, as they cast their hopes & fates northward to "the promised land" of Chicago in the 1940's. Act 2 presents the political quandary of the Johnson and Nixon administrations in confronting the new eruption of poverty & black anger in urban America. Act 3 returns us to the streets of Chicago for the denoument of all that political palpitation in the all too rapid breakdown of the War On Poverty. Lemann makes more of people than of policy; if this is not the best history of the War as a government program, it is certainly the best account of its human creation, its human frustration, and its human compassion.
  ccjolliffe | Jun 5, 2007 |
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A New York Times bestseller, the groundbreaking authoritative history of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A definitive book on American history, The Promised Land is also essential reading for educators and policymakers at both national and local levels.
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