Chicago, 1966. Ida Mae and her grandchildren notice a crowd on the street, packed around a man giving a speech. It’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After his Nobel Peace Prize, the massive 1963 March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he’s famous around the country, but he’s also unsure what his movement should focus on next. This is why he’s in Chicago, speaking about the deep inequalities and pervasive discrimination that Black migrants face in the North. However, fighting informal racism is much more complicated than simply overturning Jim Crow laws: the adversary is not blatant segregation, but rather “the ill-defined fear and antipathy” that white and Black Northerners feel for each other.
Political differences between the North and the South created different systems of racial domination, which required different responses from the civil rights movement. The South could not progress towards equality until the federal government blocked state-level Jim Crow laws, but in the North, achieving equality required completely transforming society, including by changing the way millions of people thought and breaking down the informal color lines in housing and employment—a task that is still far from complete today.
Dr. King moves to Chicago’s poorest neighborhood and starts negotiating with the mayor, Richard Daley, who cleverly gives King’s followers so much police support that their marches prove uneventful. But then, at a march in August 1966, a mob of 4,000 white protestors overwhelms the police to brutally attack King and his marchers. Dr. King later admits that it’s worse than any attack he ever saw in the South.
The civil rights movement’s power derives above all from public support—and especially from popular outrage over the violence that protestors faced. Indeed, just as racist sentiment actually grew after the end of the Civil War in the South, it also became far more common in the North after the Great Migration. This happened for a simple reason: the law no longer enforced racial hierarchy, so white people suddenly needed to do it on their own, through their attitudes and behavior. This shows that racism correlates more closely with white people’s anxiety about their economic and social status than the actual level of racial inequality in U.S. society at any given point in time.
New York, Pennsylvania Station, Mid-1960s. Trains have long been integrated in the North, and in 1964, the new Civil Rights Act officially integrates them in the South, too. Suddenly, it’s George’s job to enforce the law: Black passengers no longer have to change from integrated cars to segregated ones when the train passes through Washington, D.C. However, many conductors ignore the law and insist on segregating the trains anyway. When they do, George tactfully reminds Black passengers that they’re legally allowed to stay in their seats. This could get him fired, so he carefully gauges his passengers’ reactions before he tells them too much, and he asks them to keep everything confidential. But many passengers don’t understand, go to the Jim Crow car out of fear, or get angry at George. Yet nobody ever turns him in, and nobody who stays in their seat ever gets kicked out.
George tries to balance job security with his desire to advance the cause of racial equality. In doing so, he makes a small but distinct and important contribution to bettering his society—just like the millions of other rank-and-file participants in the civil rights movement. But his ordeal is a reminder that many Americans strongly resisted desegregation, above all in the South, and law enforcement seldom stopped them. Indeed, Black passengers’ reluctance to remain in the integrated car shows how Jim Crow invaded their own thinking, terrorizing them into complacency. While they certainly recognized that segregation was discriminatory and unjust, they preferred to deal with it rather than risk invoking the wrath of white supremacists.
Chicago, Spring 1967. After almost 30 years living in the North, Ida Mae and George Gladney have six beloved grandchildren, but still no house of their own. But they and all three of their children have stable jobs, so together, they buy a three-floor home in the South Shore neighborhood, on a beautiful tree-lined block near Lake Michigan. In the next few weeks, dozens of white families move out of the area and Black families start moving in. Within a year, the neighborhood is entirely Black. Landlords stop maintaining their properties, the city pulls money out of schools and infrastructure, and stores start to close.
Homeownership is the icing on the cake for George and Ida Mae’s life in Chicago—it represents their ability to rise beyond the ranks of the working poor and achieve a stable middle-class lifestyle. Yet the deterioration of their neighborhood threatens their fragile success. Indeed, their neighborhood’s fate shows how racism in the housing market systematically erodes Black families’ wealth over time. Contrary to popular racist stereotypes, Black families aren’t the ones who impoverish the neighborhoods where they live. Rather, middle-class Black families move into an area, and then financial institutions and the government pull resources out of it, until only impoverished families are willing to move in.
Ida Mae’s family is far from the first to have this experience. White residents threaten incoming Black families with protests and bombings, then move out fast once they arrive. Decades before Ida Mae, the renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson moved to South Shore. She got bombing threats in the middle of the night. Her neighbors shot out her windows, then moved away. By the end of the Great Migration, all of Chicago is highly segregated, with a few exceptions (like the wealthy neighborhood of Hyde Park). In fact, by the 1980s, it’s the most segregated city in the nation, and all of the top 10 are key “receiving stations of the Great Migration.”
The pattern that Ida Mae and George observe extends back decades, to the first Black enclaves in the North, like Bronzeville and Harlem. And it continues today. Home equity is the primary source of wealth for middle-class families in the U.S., and financial institutions and the government have historically discriminated against Black families. As a result, these problematic economic and societal power structures essentially incentivize some white families to see keeping Black people out of their neighborhoods as a necessary step toward defending their wealth.
New York, Late Summer 1967. George and Inez send their 13-year-old daughter, Sonya, to spend the summer in Eustis, and to their horror, she gets pregnant. George remembers when a girl at his own high school got pregnant and claimed he was the father—she miscarried, but if she hadn’t, George probably never would have finished school. Worse still, when Sonya gets pregnant, so does a woman with whom George is having an affair. Both of their babies survive. To George, the whole situation feels like poetic justice for his impulsive decision to marry Inez so many years ago.
Just like her brother Gerard, Sonya makes poor choices that threaten to ruin her life forever. This deeply disappoints George: it makes him feel as though all of his effort to provide a better life for his children was all for nothing. Indeed, it seems to suggest that one bad decision early in life—his marriage—will overshadow all his prudent adult decisions, like migrating to New York and scrupulously saving to buy a home. Of course, he also makes some less prudent decisions as an adult, like his affair, but ultimately these are more the result of his unhappy family life than the cause.
Los Angeles, 1967. Robert Foster chose to leave the South, and Dr. Rufus Clement chose to stay. They are both successful, and both want to show the world that their path was the right one. Clement hews close to institutions that Foster rejects, and Foster believes in integration, while Clement views it as unnecessary. They also compete for influence in the family.
In Wilkerson’s eyes, the reality is that neither path was inherently better than the other. The right decision depended on each individual’s particular desires, skills, and social standing. Indeed, the civil rights movement largely succeeded because Black leaders who stayed in the South worked together with those who migrated to the North.
As Robert spends more time at horse races and Las Vegas casinos, Alice and the children again grow closer to her family and start living the same socialite lives they once had in Atlanta. The only thing Robert and Alice both enjoy is throwing big parties. Robert loves nothing more than choosing extravagant dresses for Alice’s grand entrances. He also calls the press whenever Dr. Clement visits. But Dr. Clement dies of a heart attack in 1967, and Alice’s mother, Pearl, moves in with Robert and Alice.
Like George, Robert continues to neglect his unhappy family life and focus his attention elsewhere. He keeps up appearances perfectly well, and he builds the vibrant social life that he always wanted through his grand parties. Ultimately, with his lifelong vision of a happy life fulfilled, his family conflicts feel like an unfortunate but irrelevant footnote.
Chicago, February 1968. Ida Mae’s coworkers at Walther Memorial Hospital go on strike for better wages and working conditions. But she never considers joining. She doesn’t understand unions, and she has worked so many degrading jobs throughout her life that she’s immensely grateful for her current one. After buying her house, she also can’t afford to get fired. The police have to escort her to work, and the strikers often yell at them.
Ida Mae isn’t anti-union, just confused. Like the Black passengers who refuse to integrate George Starling’s trains, Ida Mae prefers to take what she can get rather than ask for more. After all, her satisfaction with working conditions that her colleagues view as intolerable only goes to show how much things have improved since she first moved to Chicago.
New York, Los Angeles, and Memphis, April 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis and protests erupt in cities around the U.S. George Starling notices fires in his neighborhood on his way home that night. Ida Mae listens to the news and prays while entire blocks burn down on the West Side. Notably, social scientists find that most participants in the riots are Northern-born young men, not migrants.
Dr. King’s assassination is such an earth-shattering event that Black Americans like Wilkerson’s protagonists remember it vividly for the rest of their lives. The social scientists’ conclusions about the riots reflect Ida Mae and George’s observations about the second generation of the Great Migration: even if they grew up with more resources than they would have had in the South, migrants’ children clearly recognize and revolt against the systematic discrimination that they face in the North.
Robert Foster is busy working during the assassination, and he strongly disapproves of the riots. He doesn’t believe in protest, violent or otherwise: he thinks that Black people should just work harder, like him. George Starling is also busy during the assassination—he’s drinking and talking baseball with his friends, and he doesn’t learn the news until he gets home. He feels totally shocked and numb. In contrast, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated five years before, George broke down in tears. Surprisingly, King’s assassin is from Illinois, not the South. And just a few days after King’s death, President Johnson passes the Fair Housing Act.
For all of Robert’s differences with his late father-in-law, Dr. Clement, his opposition to protest is one thing they would clearly share. Indeed, Robert’s life story helps explain why he believes that hard work is a better alternative to politics: it worked for him. Meanwhile, George’s reaction to JFK and King’s assassinations reflects his growing disillusionment with U.S. society in general: unlike in his youth, he no longer has faith that good will win out over evil. The home state of King’s assassin underlines Wilkerson’s conclusion that racism in the North is not necessarily less severe than in the South. Finally, the Fair Housing Act is an important (but inadequate) attempt to address the systematic discrimination that Ida Mae has experienced throughout her life as a Chicago renter and homeowner.