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We Need a Second Great Migration

Georgia illuminates the path to Black power. It lies in the South. Follow me there.

By Charles M. Blow Opinion Columnist, The New York Times Jan. 8, 2021

A young supporter at a rally for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Atlanta in December.Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times

ATLANTA — A year ago this week, I packed some bags and left New York City for Atlanta.

I’d lived in New York for 26 years. The city made me feel awake and alive — buildings tickling the sky, trains snaking underfoot. There was a seductive muscularity to the city, a feeling of riding the razor between your destiny and your demise.

I had become a New Yorker, a Brooklyn boy. There I had raised my children. There I planned to live out my days.

But the exquisite fierceness of the city, its blur of ambition and ingenuity, didn’t hide the fact that many of my fellow Black New Yorkers were locked in perpetual oppression — geographically, economically and politically isolated. All around the North, Black power, if it existed, was mostly municipal, or confined to regional representation. Black people were not serving as the dominant force in electing governors or senators or securing Electoral College votes.

Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, calls migrants of the Great Migration “refugees and exiles of terror.” By extension, many Black communities in Northern cities, abandoned by the Black elite and spurned by white progressives, have become, functionally, permanent refugee camps.

I had an idea to change that. An idea about Black self-determination. Simply put, my proposition was this: that Black people reverse the Great Migration — the mass migration of millions of African-Americans largely from the rural South to cities primarily in the North and West that spanned from 1916 to 1970. That they return to the states where they had been at or near the majority after the Civil War, and to the states where Black people currently constitute large percentages of the population. In effect, Black people could colonize the states they would have controlled if they had not fled them.

In the first census after the Civil War, three Southern states — South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana — were majority Black. In Florida, Blacks were less than two percentage points away from constituting a majority; in Alabama, it was less than three points; in Georgia, just under four.

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But the Great Migration hit the South like a bomb, siphoning off many of the youngest, brightest and most ambitious. In South Carolina, the Black share of the population declined from 55 percent to about 30 percent. Over six decades, six million people left the South.

Reversing that tide would create dense Black communities, and that density would translate into statewide political power.

Generally speaking, mass movements are largely for the young and unencumbered. Moving is expensive and psychologically taxing, displacing one from home, community and comforts. But I believe those obstacles are outweighed by opportunity. All who are able should consider this journey. That, it became clear, included me.

I chose Atlanta because many of my friends were already there, having moved to the “hot” Southern city after college, and because I saw Georgia as on the cusp of transformational change. Little did I know that this election cycle would be a proof of concept for my proposal.

In November, Georgia voted blue for the first time since Bill Clinton won the state in 1992. A majority of those who voted for Joe Biden were Black. This week, Georgia elected its first Black senator in state history — indeed the first popularly elected Democratic Black senator from the whole South: Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Georgia also elected its first Jewish senator — only the second from the South since the 1880s: Jon Ossoff.

Perhaps most striking, the Warnock win was the first time in American history that a Black senator was popularly elected by a majority-Black coalition. It was a momentous flex of Black power.

It was jarring to see that news almost immediately overshadowed by the vision of white rioters marauding through the Capitol on Wednesday. It was an affront, an attack. We must remember that while modern wails of white power may be expressed by a man in face paint and furs shouting from a purloined podium, Black power must materialize the way it did in Georgia.


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