A Tale of Three Cities

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

by Nicholas Lemann
Knopf, 410 pp., $24.95

During the 1950s, the black population of Chicago more than doubled, fed by a stream of Southerners, many of them from the Mississippi Delta, where sharecropping as a way of life was coming to an end. As many as two thousand a week passed through the Illinois Central train station, the Ellis Island of this immigration. Many were recognized by blacks hanging around the station, waiting for the arrival of friends or relatives, ready to show them the glories of this Promised Land.

Others were waiting there, too, many to be of help—“reporters, academics, reformers, and liberal clergymen,” as Nicholas Lemann describes the scene. Cardinal Stritch, of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, sometimes went himself, and more often sent his emissaries. Racism would move north with the blacks, many had predicted; but a formidable combination of interests was opposing that development.

The stream of blacks, begun in the Forties and drying up only in the Eighties, would severely tax the resources of this northern city, the one Lemann wisely chooses as a test of them all. If blacks could make it anywhere, it would be there, not in New York or Detroit or Philadelphia. If they should fail in Chicago, then they must be doomed indeed.

Lemann puts together with great skill the array of institutional and personal sources of aid, many only partly visible at the time, available to the incoming blacks.

  1. First, there was Mayor Daley. After the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, Daley would be remembered as a repressive mayor (though even in 1968 the blacks of Chicago stayed quiet, thanks to programs Daley had deployed to insure their quiescence). Blacks had been the winning bloc in his first election, and they remained indispensable to his political base. Besides, Daley was indebted to, and a benefactor of, the Catholic liberals of Chicago—including R. Sargent Shriver—who would play a large role in the War on Poverty.

  2. Blacks had been part of the Chicago machine even before Daley, with the patronage benefits accruing from that position. Arriving Southerners would be processed as nineteenth-century immigrants were in Boston and New York, given jobs for their votes. Congressman Ralph Metcalfe showed the path to power in the machine that was followed by Harold Washington.

  3. The University of Chicago had a great and activist sociology department doing research in, and offering new conceptual tools for alleviating, ethnic tensions in that most ethnic of cities. Two scholars in particular, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, would have a great influence on government policy dealing with Chicago’s (and other cities’) blacks.

  4. Chicago was 40 percent Catholic in the 1950s, and its archdiocese, under Cardinal Stritch, was the most liberal of any big city’s, with activist priests like Jack Egan and laymen like Ed Marciniak. Marciniak helped bring Daley and Martin Luther King together for the first time, and felt hope for the future when the two men took pictures of their children out of their wallets for some mutual congratulating …

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