Texts: Amos 5: 14-24; Matthew 2: 13-23
Back in the old days, whatever those were, children were supposed to be seen and not heard, but I remember a conversation at my Aunt Ruby’s dinner table when I was about fourteen or so when I put my two cents in and was so advised: Nobody wanted my opinion, least of all my southern relatives. The conversation was about the young people who were leaving the white-owned family farms in the 1950s, a fact that my Aunt Ruby was bemoaning. Uncle Evans, her absolutely terrible husband -- I never understood why she ever married that man -- was telling her that the “nigras” -- the way he referred to African Americans when he was being polite -- just weren’t grateful for all the good stuff that they had: shacks without paved roads, running water or bathroom facilities, not to mention segregated schools, the local KKK, and cast-off clothing. This was one of those great summers that I got packed off for a so-called vacation.
I could not just contain myself and piped up, “Why on earth would any of your help ever stay here?” Everyone around the table looked startled and launched into all of the reasons why “they,” the “colored help,” should be grateful. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but the young people who were leaving the farm were part of what has come to be called “The Great Migration,” a period of time from 1915 to 1970 when some six million black southerners left the land of their birth and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America.
In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson details the forces that drove this migration and which changed the face of our nation. It is a story that bears telling because what we learned from that story was that although racism was not confined to the South, the cities of the north, including many in our New York metropolitan area, offered opportunities that would not have been available in the South of that era. Many stayed in the South, of course, and that part of the country became the focus of the Civil Rights movement that we think of this Martin Luther King weekend. They became the ones reviled by my mother’s southern family for their so-called ingratitude.
Over the centuries when people have been oppressed so hard they could not stand, in the words of the old spiritual, they have put their things together, gotten up, and left. Migrations are not just new to this century or even to this continent. Seventy-seven thousand years ago, a craftsman sat in a cave in a limestone cliff overlooking the rocky coast of what is now the Indian Ocean. It was a beautiful spot, a workshop with a glorious natural picture window, cooled by a sea breeze in summer, warmed by a small fire in winter. The sandy cliff top above was covered with a white-flowering shrub that one distant day would be known as blombos and give this place the name Blombos Cave. The person picked up a piece of reddish brown stone about three inches long that he—or she, no one knows—had polished. With a stone point, he etched a geometric design in the flat surface—simple crosshatchings framed by two parallel lines with a third line down the middle. Today the stone offers no clue to its original purpose. It could have been a religious object, an ornament or just an ancient doodle. But to see it is to immediately recognize it as something only a person could have made. Carving the stone was a very human thing to do.
The scratchings on this piece of red ocher mudstone are the oldest known example of an intricate design made by a human being. The ability to create and communicate using such symbols, says Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist and leader of the team that discovered the stone, is "an unambiguous marker" of modern humans, one of the characteristics that separate us from any other species, living or extinct. Beyond carving the stone, the people also picked up and moved to find land more suitable. Migration is a good deal of what separates us from other early species such as the Neanderthals who died out. Neanderthals buried their dead and made jewelry like human beings, but they did not migrate. Human beings from little Lucy in the African desert to Abraham and Sarah to the immigrants that made our nation have always migrated. They have migrated because something beyond their situation offered hope. Migration is a fact of human existence.
Martin Luther King knew that. He just didn’t take his struggle for civil rights to the cities and towns in the south but to the cities and towns in the North. He went to Chicago to march for fair housing laws where he had rocks thrown at him in Gage Park. He began a “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” to eradicate poverty he saw as a curse on the Nation. Of course, the garbage man’s strike was in Memphis, where he was shot, but he was in the process of working in more northern cities. He was responding to that Great Migration discussed so well in Wilkerson’s book.
So, what is it that drives us to leave our natal surroundings to take on a new life that offers uncertainty as well as possibility? Some of it is driven by force of arms, to be sure; in other cases, it is driven by climate change; and, of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. Because so much migration occurred either before the advent of written records or was documented only by the peoples being invaded, such as the Chinese or South Asians by the Mongols, or the edges of the Roman Empire by the peoples termed barbarians, we have to rely on archaeological evidence to try to guess what brought about various migrations, such as the peoples who crossed the Bering Straits and became our Native Americans.
The African Americans who left the South and moved into the cities of the north were responding to the total lack of opportunity in the land of their birth. They knew that they had to leave to create better lives for themselves. They came up the Mississippi into Chicago, bringing the musical forms of jazz; they spread out into cities like Detroit and became the industrial workers that helped to build the American economy. Although many became migrant workers, many more left the farm labor to other kinds of migrants who now pick our crops.
According to the Census Bureau about 20 percent of Americans move every five years. Sometimes that move is just to another house, but more often it is to another community. We middle class Americans are no different than other kinds of migrants. We move for better jobs, more opportunity, when we marry. Think about it. How many people do you know who have been in the same community where they were born? Many of you come from other parts of the country.
King saw this as a sign of hope because it meant that people would not be satisfied with the living conditions where they were raised. He did not speak only to and about African Americans. He spoke to and about all humanity.