New York City tenementsAP

Black people now hold the balance of electoral power in some of the nation’s largest cities, while population experts predict that in the next ten to twenty years, black Americans will constitute the majority in a dozen or more cities. In Washington, D.C., and Newark, New Jersey, they already are in the majority; in Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis, they represent one third or slightly more of the population; in such places as Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, they constitute well over one fourth. Even at the height of European immigration, no ethnic group has ever multiplied so rapidly in the United States. In order to understand the black ghetto—both its great problems and its capacity to become a key political force in urban America—we should take a brief look at the history of black migration to the North.

Many slaves escaped to the North before Emancipation, while some, of course, migrated to Liberia, Haiti, and Central America. The Emancipation Proclamation cut many loose from the land, and starting with the end of the Civil War, there developed a steady trickle of freed men from the South. During Reconstruction, this northward migration eased somewhat with the ability of black people to take advantage of the franchise.

Soon after, however, Southern racism and fanaticism broke loose. Thousands of black people were killed in the 1870s in an effort by whites to destroy the political power that blacks had gained. This was all capped by the deal of 1876 whereby the Republicans guaranteed that Mr. Hayes, when he became President, would, by noninterference and the withdrawal of troops, allow the planters—under the name of Democrats—to gain control in the Deep South. The withdrawal of these troops by President Hayes and the appointment of a Kentuckian and a Georgian to the Supreme Court marked the handwriting on the wall.

In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. DuBois portrays the situation clearly:

Negroes did not surrender the ballot easily or immediately. They continued to hold remnants of political power in South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, in parts of North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. Black Congressmen came out of the South until 1895 and Black legislators served as late as 1896. But in a losing battle with public opinion, industry and wealth against them … the decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. … From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro as compelled to give up his political power.

Black people were therefore looking to move again. About 60,000 went to Kansas, two thirds of them destitute on arrival. In general, however, migration to escape the new regime in the South did not really get under way until World War I. Business was booming in 1914-1915 as this nation became a major supplier of war materials to the Allies. This in turn increased the job market, and with the war cutting off the flow of immigrants from Europe, Northern industry went on a massive campaign to recruit black workers. Emigration from the Deep South jumped from 200,000 in the decade 1890-1900 to half a million in 1910-1920. This migration northward did not cease with the conclusion of the war. The Immigration and Exclusion Acts of the early twenties created a great demand by industry for more workers (especially Ford). As a result, during the twenties and thirties about 1,300,000 black people migrated from the Deep South to the North. By 1940, over 2 million blacks had migrated northward. (However, as late as 1940 more than three out of every four black people still remained in the South.)

World War II intensified black migration out of the Deep South, more so than World War I had done. Black people moved to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Akron, Gary, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, New York, and many other places. They found work in the steel mills, aircraft factories, and shipyards, for the most part as laborers and as domestics. During the forties, roughly 250,000 blacks migrated to the West Coast alone to find work. This migration did not slow down with the end of the war but continued into the sixties.

Rise in Black Population Outside South
(United States Census)

Percent of Total Number of Blacks
1900 10 1,647,377
1910 11 1,899,654
1920 15 2,407,371
1930 21 3,483,746
1940 23 3,986,606
1950 32 5,989,543
1960 40 9,009,470

Today, over 65 percent of the black people live in urban America. This figure, of course, includes many of the urban areas of the South—Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, and elsewhere. Mechanization of Southern plantations has been a major reason for the migration. In 1966, for example, over 75 percent of all cotton was picked by machines in the seventeen major cotton-growing counties of Mississippi. (A machine can pick one bale of cotton per hour; it takes an able-bodied man one week to pick a bale.)

Census data tell us that the largest percentage increase in black population was in the West, especially California. About 8 percent of the black population lived in the West in 1966, compared with 5.7 percent in 1960. Increases in the Northeast and North Central states were not as sharp, although the overall percentages were greater (17.9 percent of the black population lived in the Northeast in 1966, compared with 16 percent in 1960, while 20.2 percent lived in the North Central states compared with 18.3 percent in 1960.)

What problems did black people face as they moved into these areas? Most of the blacks moving to the North were crowded into the slums of the cities. In the face of bombs and riots, they fought for a place to live and room for relatives and friends who followed them. They also faced a daily fight for jobs. At first, they were refused industrial employment and forced to accept menial work. As we have seen, wartime brought many jobs, but were the first cut from the job market, while skill and craft jobs for the most part remained closed to them. Added to the problems of housing and jobs, of course, was that of education. By the early part of the twentieth century, these three issues had become fundamental problems of the ghetto and fundamental to the early racial explosions. The city of Chicago offers a classic illustration of this type.

As black people started arriving in Chicago and the turn of the century, they were forced into old ghettos, where rents were cheapest and housing poorest. They took over the old, dilapidated shacks near the railroad tracks—and close to the vice areas. The tremendous demand for housing resulted in an immediate skyrocketing of rents in the ghetto. Artificial panics were often created by enterprising realtors who raised the cry “The niggers are coming,” and then proceeded to double the rents after the white had fled.

The expansion of the ghetto developed so much friction that bombs were often thrown at black-owned homes in the expanding neighborhoods. In Chicago, over a dozen black homes were bombed between July 1, 1917, and July 1, 1919. This sporadic bombing of black homes was but the prelude to a five-day riot in July, 1919, which took at least thirty-eight lives, resulted in over five hundred injuries, destroyed $250,000 worth of property, and left over a thousand persons homeless. In their book Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton describe how the riot was ended on the sixth day by the state militia, belatedly called after the police had shown their inability, and in some instances, their unwillingness, to curb attacks on black people.

A nonpartisan, interracial Chicago Commission on Race Relations was appointed to investigate and to make recommendations. According to Drake and Cayton, the commission recommended the correction of gross inequities in protection on the part of the police and the state’s attorney; it also rebuked the courts for facetiousness in dealing with black defendants and the police for discrimination in making arrests. The Board of Education was asked to exercise special care in selecting principals and teachers in ghetto schools (schools at that time were segregated by law, or de jure, while today ghetto schools are segregated de facto), to alleviate overcrowding and double shifts Employers and labor organizations were admonished in some detail against the use of black workers as strike-breakers and against excluding them from unions and industries. The City Council was asked to condemn all houses unfit for human habitation, of which the commission found many in the black ghetto. The commission also affirmed the rights of black people to live anywhere they wanted and could afford to live in the city. It insisted that property depreciation in black areas was often due to factors other than black occupancy; it condemned arbitrary increase of rents and designated the amounts and quality of housing as an all-important factor in Chicago’s race problem. Looking at these recommendations, we realized that they are not only similar but almost identical to the demands made by Dr. Martin Luther King’s group forty-seven years later in Chicago—not to mention other urban areas in the 1960s.

Such explosions and recommendations were to be heard many more times in urban areas all over the country during the twenties, thirties, and forties. But in the fifties a political protest movement was born which had a calming, wait-and-see effect on the attitude of many urban black people. There was the Supreme Court decision of 1954; the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1957; the dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to prevent interference with school desegregation in 1957. The student sit-in movement in 1960 and 1961, the emotional appeal of President Kennedy, and the great amount of visibility given to the NAACP, Urban League, CORE, SNCC, and other civil rights organizations further contributed to creating a period of relative calm in the ghetto.

Then, in the spring of 1963, the lull was over.

The eruption in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963 showed how quickly anger can develop into violence. Black people were angry about the killing of Emmett Till and Charles Mack Parker, the failure of federal, state, and city governments to deal honestly with the problems of ghetto life. Now they themselves read in the newspapers, saw on television, and watched from the street corners the police dogs and the fire hoses and the policemen beating their friends and relatives. They watched as young high school students and women were beaten, as Martin Luther King and his co-workers were marched off to jail. The spark was ignited when a black-owned motel in Birmingham and the home of Dr. King’s brother were bombed. This incident brought hundreds of angry black people into the street throwing rocks and bottles and sniping at policemen. The echoes went far and wide. In Chicago, a few days later, two black youths assaulted the mayor’s eighteen-year-old nephew, shouting: “This is for Birmingham.” It was for Birmingham, true, but it was for three hundred and fifty years of history before Birmingham as well. The explosions were soon to be heard in Harlem, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Rochester in 1964, Watts in 1965. Omaha, Atlanta, Dayton, and dozens of other places in 1966. James Baldwin stated it clearly in 1963: “When a race riot occurs … it will not spread merely to Birmingham … The trouble will spread to every metropolitan center in the nation which has a significant Negro population.”

This brief scan of history clearly indicates that the disturbances in our cities are not just isolated reactions to the cry of “Black Power,” but part of a pattern. The problems of Harlem in the 1960s are not much different from those of Harlem 1920.

The core problem within the ghetto is the vicious circle created by the lack of decent housing, decent jobs, and adequate education. The failure of these three fundamental institutions has led to alienation of the ghetto from the rest of the urban area as well as to deep political rifts between the two communities.

In America we judge by American standards, and by this yardstick we find that the black man lives in incredibly inadequate housing, shabby shelters that are dangerous to mental and physical health and to life itself. It has been estimated that 20 million black people but $15 billion into rents, mortgage payments, and housing expenses every year. But because his choice is largely limited to the ghettos, and because the black population is increasing at a rate which is 150 percent over that of the increase in the white population the shelter shortage for the black person is not only acute and perennial, but getting increasingly tighter. Black people are automatically forced to pay top dollar for whatever they get, even a 6 by 6 cold-water flat.

Urban renewal and highway clearance programs have forced black people more and more into congested pockets of the inner city. Since suburban zoning laws have kept out low-income housing, and the federal government has failed to pass open-occupancy laws, black people are forced to stay in the deteriorating ghettos. Thus crowding increases, and slum conditions worsen.

In the urban renewal undertaking in Mill Creek, Illinois, close to St. Louis, for instance, a black slum was cleared, and in its place rose a middle-income housing development. What happened to those evicted to make way for this great advance? The majority were forced into what remained of the black ghetto; in other words, the crowding was intensified.

Here we begin to understand the pervasive, cyclic implications of institutional racism. Barred from most housing, black people are forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, and with this comes de facto segregated schooling, which means poor education, which leads in turn to ill-paying jobs.

It is impossible to talk about the problems of education in the black community without at some point dealing with the issue of desegregation and integration, especially since the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954: “In the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” However, all the discussion of it integration or busing today seems highly irrelevant; to talk around and never deal with the problem. For example, in Washington, D.C., the schools were supposedly integrated immediately after the movements of whites into suburbs and blacks into the inner (ghetto) city, black children attend what are in fact segregated schools. Today, roughly 85 percent of the children in the Washington, D.C. public schools are black. Nor is integration very relevant or meaningful in any of the other major urban areas. In Chicago, 87 percent of the black students in elementary school attend virtually all-black public schools. In Detroit, 45 percent of the black students are in public schools that are overwhelmingly black. In Philadelphia, thirty-eight elementary schools have a black enrollment of 99 percent. In April, 1967, the Reverend Henry Nichols, vice president of the Philadelphia School Board, stated on television that the city had two separate school systems: one for the ghetto, the other for the rest of the city. There was no public denial from any other knowledgeable sources in the city. In Los Angeles, forty-three elementary schools have at least 85 percent black attendance. In the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, 77 percent of the elementary schools students and 72 percent of the junior high school students are black.

Clearly, “integration,” even if it would solve the educational problem, has not proved feasible. The alternative presented is usually the large-scale transfer of black children to schools in white neighborhoods. This too raises several problems. Implicit is the idea that the closer you get to whiteness, the better you are. Another problem is that it makes the majority of black youth expendable. Probably the maximum number of blacks who could transfer from ghetto schools to white schools, given the overcrowded conditions of city schools anyway, is about 20 percent. The 80 percent let behind are therefore expendable.

The real need at present is not integration but quality education.

In central Harlem, for example, there are twenty elementary schools, four junior high schools, and no high schools. A total of 31,469 students—virtually all black—attend these schools. In New York as a whole, only 50.3 percent of the teachers in the black and Puerto Rican elementary schools were fully licensed as compared with 78.2 percent in white schools.

In 1960, in central Harlem 21.6 percent of third-grade students were reading above grade level and 30 percent were reading below. By the sixth grade, 11.7 percent were reading above and 80 percent were reading below grade level. The median equivalent grades reading comprehension for central Harlem, third grade, was a full year behind the city median and the national norm, and by the sixth grade it was two years behind. The same is true of world knowledge. In arithmetic, the students of central Harlem are one and a half years behind the rest of the city by the sixth grade, and by the time they are in the eighth grade, they are two years behind.

The basic story of education in central Harlem emerges as one of inefficiency, inferiority, and mass deterioration. It is a system which typifies colonialism and the colonist’s attitude. Nor is Harlem unique. Reverend Henry Nichols stated in 1967 that 75 percent of the black children who would be graduated that year are “functional illiterates. … The reason for this,” he added, “is the attitude of school administrators toward black people.”

There can be no doubt that in today’s world a thorough and comprehensive education is an absolute necessity. Yet it is obvious from the data that a not even minimum education is being received in most ghetto schools. White decision-makers have been running those schools with injustice, indifference, and inadequacy for too long; the result has been an educationally crippled black child turned out onto the labor market equipped to do little more than stand in welfare lines to receive his miserable dole.

It should not be hard to understand why approximately 41 percent of the pupils entering high school from central Harlem drop out before receiving a diploma. When one couples school conditions with the overcrowded and deteriorating housing in which black pupils must live and study, additional factors become clear. Males, in particular, must leave school because of financial pressure. The young dropout or even high school graduate with an inadequate education, burdened also by the emotional deprivations which are the consequences of poverty, is now on the street looking for a job. In its 1964 report, HARYOU (Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited) clearly states:

That the unemployment situation among Negro youth in Central Harlem is explosive can be readily seen in the fact that twice as many young Negroes in the labor force, as compared to their white counterparts, were without employment in 1960. For the girls the disparity was even greater: nearly two and one-half times the unemployment rate for white girls in the labor force. Undoubtedly this situation has worsened since 1960, in view of the report of the New York State Department of Labor indicating that job-hunting was generally tougher in 1963 than in the previous year. Also, it is generally conceded that official statistics on unemployment are considerably understated for black youth since only those persons actively looking for work in the past 60 days are included in census taking … such a situation building up, this mass of unemployed and frustrated Negro youth, is social dynamite. We are presented with a phenomenon that may be compared with the piling up of inflammable material in an empty building in a city block.

The struggle for employment has had a drastic effect on the black community. It perpetuates the breakdown of the black family structure. Many men who are unable to find employment leave their homes so that their wives can qualify for Aid to Dependent Children or welfare. Children growing up in a welfare situation often leave school because of a lack of incentive or because they do not have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. They in turn go out to seek jobs but only find a more negative situation than their fathers faced. So they join the Army if possible, or if not, they turn to petty crime, pushing dope, prostitution, and the cycle continues.

We have not touched on the issue of health and medical care in the ghetto. Whitney Young has documented conditions at length in To Be Equal; the pattern is predictably dismal. The black infant mortality rate in 1960 exceeded that in the total population by 66 percent; the maternal death rate for black women was four times as high as that for whites in 1960; the life expectancy for nonwhites was six years less than for whites; approximately 30 percent more white people have health insurance than blacks; only 2 percent of the nation’s physicians are black, which means that in segregated areas one finds such situations as Mississippi with a ratio of one doctor per 18,500 black residents! Those of us who survive must indeed be tough.

These are the conditions which create dynamite in the ghettos. And when there are explosions—explosions of frustration, despair, and hopelessness—the larger society becomes indignant and utters irrelevant clichés about maintaining law and order. Blue ribbon committees of “experts” and “consultants” are appointed to investigate the “causes of the riot.” They then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on preparing “authoritative” reports. Some token money from the Office of Economic Opportunity may be promised, and then everybody either prays for rain to cool off tempers and vacate the streets or for an early autumn.

This country, with its pervasive institutional racism, has itself created socially undesirable conditions; it merely perpetuates those conditions when it lays the blame on people who, through whatever means at their disposal, seek to strike out at the conditions. What has to be understood is that thus far there have been virtually no legitimate programs to deal with the alienation and the oppressive conditions in the ghettos. On April 9, 1967, a few days after Mayor Daley won an overwhelming, unprecedented fourth-term victory (receiving, incidentally, approximately 85 percent of Chicago’s black vote), the New York Times editorialized: “Like other big city mayors, Mr. Daley has no long-range plans for coping with the social dislocation caused by the steady growth of the Negro population. He tries to manage the effects of that dislocation and hopes for the best.”

Herein lies the match that will continue to ignite the dynamite in the ghettos: the ineptness of decision-makers, the anachronistic institutions, the inability to think boldly, and above all the unwillingness to innovate. The makeshift plans put together every summer by city administrations to avoid rebellions in the ghettos are merely buying time. White America can continue to appropriate millions of dollars to take ghetto teen-agers off the streets and onto nice green farms during the hot summer months. They can continue to provide mobile swimming pools and hastily built play areas, but there is a point beyond which the steaming ghettos will not be cooled off. It is ludicrous for the society to believe that these temporary measures can long contain the tempers of an oppressed people. And when the dynamite does go off, pious pronouncements of patience should not go forth. Blame should not be placed on “outside agitators” or on “Communist influence” or on advocates of Black Power. That dynamite was placed there by white racism, and it was ignited by white racist indifference and unwillingness to act justly.


This essay was adapted from Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.

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