Setting the record straight about the evolution of race relations in the U.S.

March 17, 1991|By Garland L. Thompson





Nicholas Lemann.


410 pages. $24.95.

To those who grew up in the urban North during the 1950s and '60s, as I did in Southeast Pennsylvania, it was obvious that a major segment of the American population was on the move. Carload after carload of people and belongings kept arriving in the neighborhood, sometimes on your very doorstep. Playgrounds and schools seemed to keep filling up with people you didn't know, people whose conversation was filled with the poetry and music of the Deep South.

If you were black, their parents seemed remarkably able to conjure up connections with people and towns your parents and relatives knew something about, and some of them even turned out to be relatives of yours. So it didn't matter if you had never set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line -- you still came up surrounded by Southerners and imbibed their ethos and their folkways. That and the jumbled sense of hopelessness, optimism, determination, anger, resignation, fear and the wistful feeling of something lost, even as they remembered dreadful things they had seen.

It was thus a shock years later to find out, as portrayed in exhibitions, books and touring collections of photographs, that the great black migration that began around the turn of the century ended just before World War II. Finally, thanks are due to Nicholas Lemann for setting the record straight.

That's only one of the areas where this book clears out rubbish on what happened in race relations in these United States, but it lifts a heavy weight from those of us who lived in the affected neighborhoods, directly a part of the tumult, dislocation and opportunity of those years. What we lived through was a pretty dramatic piece of history, after all.

And what a way to tell it. Mr. Lemann, a longtime writer for magazines, focused a reporter's unflinching gaze on the hard realities of segregation, rebellion and the backlash that followed and came away not repelled, but encouraged that something still could be done.

His trenchant analysis of the failings and posturing of white Southern reactionaries, Northern liberals and today's neo-conservatives is matched by a no-nonsense uncovering of human frailty in the ghetto blacks they quarreled over, and the conceits and posturing of black leaders who played on the same stage during the great civil rights campaigns. However, that didn't cause him to skip a beat in concluding that effective remedies still are available.

One example is his reading of the true success of the much-maligned Great Society programs. The black middle class provided the critical leadership of civil rights and all that came after, he says, and the Great Society vastly expanded middle-class opportunities. People who move up move out of urban slums, regardless of ethnic group, he notes, so it is hardly surprising the black middle class did so.

But programs that put urban dwellers to work on New Deal-style infrastructure rebuilding, managed largely by the black middle class, would bring benefits to everybody while removing the central obstacle to progress for the hardest-hit city dwellers. His cost estimate is modest: $10 billion to $25 billion a year, which, as he says, is less than 1/30th of the federal budget, even at the high end.

Still, this book is not to be read as a mere polemic, one more attempt by a guilt-ridden liberal to get society geared up for a new push to help "those people," who seem so unable to do anything for themselves. George F. Will, no liberal in any sense of the word, liked this book, along with Henry Hampton, maker of "Eyes on the Prize," and Hodding Carter. Maybe Mr. Lemann isn't so easily categorized at all.

Rather, this is a hugely successful reporter's telling of a story big enough to have defied attempts to reduce it to generalities that fit easily in the popular mind. It is the story of a people in transition, told through the voices, lives and dreams of a handful of families who moved from the poverty and chaos of sharecropper farming in the Mississippi Delta to the muscular uncertainties of making lives in Chicago. At points, it is told with the flair of a novel.

As well, it is a sharp dissection of the social policies fashioned by the American polity in addressing the phenomenon presented by 6 million people trekking out of rural America's backwaters to the industrial heartland. Icons are being destroyed in this work -- even some named Kennedy and anointed with liberal sainthood -- but what comes up in their places is human beings pushed by a tide of history, struggling to maintain a sense of decency.

Perhaps that's what Mr. Will liked so much. But readers can see some sainted conservative oxen gored before the story is finished.

It's too bad this book doesn't have pictures, though. The jacket on this landmark work tantalizes with its image of five young boys, all dressed up for Easter, draped over the hood and fenders of a car, but that's all you get for photos. The afterword says Mr. Lemann looked at many pictures provided by participants in the story, but he and his publisher didn't share them with us.

What was shared with the rest of us, however, is quite enough to prompt major reassessments of where America's poorest citizens are and how they came to be there. It was about time.

Mr. Thompson is a member of the Editorial Board of The Sun.

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