The Unchanged Patterns of Changing Migration
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 21-23
A lot of Southern history moves around in buses. In 1956. a domestic worker, Rosa Parks, refused to stir from her seat for a White man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and prompted the historic boycott beginning a decade of mass movement for civil rights. Blacks and Whites suffered physical abuse and death when they banded together as the “Freedom Riders” to travel the South by commercial buses to integrate that segregated system. “Busing,” of course, became a political obscenity for those who opposed school integration in the late 1960s. And throughout, one-way tickets from Eutaw, Greenville, and Valdosta to the North separated families and helped drain the South of more than 12 million of its own.
Some of the old battlegrounds of civil rights, like the Birmingham bus station, still stand with discolored paint and memories. Many others including Atlanta’s terminal are new structures offering modem conveniences and perhaps a clearer view of the confused strains of today’s Southern ways.
Shortly beyond the front door in the Atlanta terminal, visitors are welcomed by the smell of fat frying. A fast foods restaurant serves hamburgers and soft drinks with employees in red and yellow uniforms. Many take their food to the lobby where the open floor space is spotted with remaining cellophane wrappers and deformed cups. The Black men and women, who sit in most of the hard plastic seats waiting for a faceless voice to announce their particular bus, are traveling the same buses as their forebearers. Yet, they have reached their final destinations.
These people are not in route in the migration which their parents or older brothers and sisters made northward by rail and bus. Most of these people are going back home for a few days to Americus, Tuskegee, or Augusta or buying a round-trip ticket up north to Detroit and New York only to visit. No longer the way-station for a longer trip, Atlanta and the other Southern cities are where they stopped once before and stayed. These people have already arrived.
The Census Bureau data shows as much: Southern metropolitan areas are the only cities in the United States which have been growing in total population since 1970.
In part, the growth is helped by a small stream of Blacks beginning to come back from the North where they’ve lived for years. Upon returning, they are not headed for the rural counties where their parents and kin lived a generation ago. They’re settling into the cities of the South. Perhaps attracted by increasingly visible Black politicians, closeness to family, and the appearance of more jobs in the urban South, they come often by car. A little better off than before, they come home for even better times.
The one-way tickets are still being bought. In the small towns of the heavily Black-populated rural South the historic migration continues, only now it, too, often stops in Atlanta and other Southern cities. Fewer go on North. In the only rural areas in the country where more people have been leaving than coming since 1970, these Blacks buy their bus tickets for the same reason others did 30 years ago: rural life is unbearable for them.
If they stay, life looks dead end. In the face of rising costs and local resistance, Black farmers have had their numbers reduced by more than 90 percent since 1945! Over the past five years, farmers’ incomes have made no substantial gain or dropped. Small Black farmers suffer most. Taken over by machinery, the number of farm jobs, as well as the pay scale, is abysmally low.
Non-farm employment offers no better hope. Since jobs in rural areas have become so scarce for so long, many people no longer seek them and are no longer actively in the work force of the rural South. Two years ago a survey showed nearly 40 percent of the adult population not in the work force. In the last decade, employment grew in rural areas in the Deep South at a rate of 8.2 percent while the birth rate added 14.4 percent to the population. Simply, there were fewer jobs than people.
Not surprising, the last census revealed that the South contained virtually all of the Black, rural poor in the country. One out of every two Blacks in the rural South is dirt-poor.
While there is a peculiar sense of equal poverty in the rural South, an increasing number of those who face an almost insurmountable plight is the Black woman who is the head of the household. It’s estimated this year that one in three of all Black women living in the rural South are now the head of their household.
By the last census count, seven out of ten of their families were below the poverty level. While Black mothers are obviously eligible for welfare payments, most of them in the rural South work. With welfare benefits and food stamps as little as $2,800 per year for a family of four in Mississippi, employment may be their only means for actual survival. Yet, the jobs usually available to Black women in rural areas are largely limited to service work.
More than 70 percent of the Black females working in the rural South are domestic servants.
The traditional emancipator, education, appears unbelievably useless for Black mothers wanting to find decent-paying jobs. Of those who have a high school education in the rural South, 67 percent are below the poverty level. Thus, a high school diploma isn’t worth as much as a one-way bus ticket heading out.
Unfortunately, if these women pack up the children and go off to Jackson, Columbia, or some other Southern city, their prospects are discouraging. While jobs are more available, there are also larger numbers who have already migrated from the urban North and rural South and are looking for work. Available, good jobs require very different skills from those developed in rural domestic service. As in the past up North, welfare is the only survival for many who tried to escape rural poverty only to find urban despair.
No wonder the unemployment rates among Blacks have been as high in Southern cities as Northern, especially for the young and female. In 1976, for instance, Atlanta’s unemployment rates matched the Northern big cities. And Black women continue to face the highest barriers.
Next to the hamburger stand, the bus station’s gift shop mostly sells cigarettes and candy. On a rear, side shelf sits a more unusual item – a little hand-size, miniature bale of cotton bound with cheap burlap. It’s just like those that used to sit on the freight docks of New Orleans in antebellum days – except about a ton lighter. Selling for about two dollars, the gift is tagged on the bottom with gummy paper boasting in small letters: “Made in Taiwan.”
The field where the fiber was grown and the factory where it was wrapped are an entire continent and ocean away. The hands that picked the cotton were probably mechanical arms of a large farming tractor. Nothing about it is Southern. Yet, there it sits – a product of people, industry and jobs far away – as someone’s memorabilia of the South’s history.
The faceless voice announces another bus and a swinging door opens to funnel travelers in and out. Leaning forward, a large suitcase in one hand, a small child in the other, a Black woman walks to the counter. She is in Atlanta. She has arrived.