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Among the most important factors contributing to the reversal of emigration from the South were the political and social changes that culminated in a number of Supreme Court decisions and federal actions in the 1950s and 1960s. Although African Americans would continue to face discrimination, violence, and other obstacles, actions taken by the federal government to formally dismantle Jim Crow generated change in many southern communities and sparked hope for a brighter future for the region.

Formal and informal segregation, discrimination in employment and housing, denial of civil rights, and outright violence faced by African Americans in southern communities provided a major impetus to leave the region during the first half of the twentieth century. It was not merely custom, but also state and municipal laws that systematically excluded blacks from workplaces, public spaces, voting booths, and schools.

Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural SouthGrowing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South by Charles Johnson

And it is the political awareness and activism among southerners that brought about immense political and social transformations. The swelling ranks of the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 1960s bolstered the assault on segregation with sit-ins, protests, voter-registration drives, and boycotts.

As a result, the Supreme Court reversed the "separate but equal" doctrine in 1954, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that state-sponsored segregation was indeed unconstitutional. Along with this landmark decision, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act signaled an earnest attack by the federal government on Jim Crow.

In the late 1960s, ever increasing numbers of African Americans chose to fight these battles in political arenas. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a total of seventy-two African Americans held elected offices in the states of the old Confederacy. Just five years later, that number increased almost tenfold. In March 1971, 711 African Americans held elected offices in the same states.

Tommy Dortch, a young man with political aspirations, moved back to the South in order to pursue a political career, explaining to the magazine Ebony in 1973: "I left the South like everybody else-looking for my future in the North ... but it did not take me long to realize that, politically, I could get elected easier in the South and be more effective."

The promise of life in the South without the obstacles of the segregationist and discriminatory laws of the past - and the reality that informal but entrenched discrimination existed in the North - made the South an enticing destination for many migrants. Etta Willis, who left San Francisco for Mount Olive, Mississippi, described the improvement in southern conditions in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:

You don't have the racism here that you used to have; frankly I have experienced less racism here than I did in San Francisco. The racism in San Francisco is very hard to detect, but it's there. It's here too, but not like that. If someone doesn't care for you, they tell you to your face, and I can't think of a time that's happened since I came back.

For many African Americans who had left the South with hopes of escaping discrimination, the North proved to be an illusory "promised land." With the dismantling of Jim Crow many, like Etta Willis, preferred the more familiar social interactions of the South to the less "detectable" racism of the North and West.

Additionally, many of the humiliating social customs that had prevailed in the South decades earlier had begun to fade by the 1970s. Earnest Smith, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1944, recalled the time before he left the South as one filled with discrimination, segregation, violence, and the embarrassment of answering to the term boy.

Smith and his wife moved back to Mississippi in 1970 and found a more hospitable environment. In a 1971 interview with Ebony magazine, Smith observed:

Everybody's been wonderful. ... White folks used to always hurry you up or curse at you when I left [in the 1940s]. Now they stop you on the street to say "Hello" and some of 'em call you "Sir." And they say "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" to my wife and call her "Miss Smith." Things changed so much, one guy come here from Chicago and brought his white wife.

Similarly, Elijah Davis, who moved back to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1970 after living in Gary, Indiana, for twenty years, remarked: "Before I left here years ago, there were places you couldn't go, places you couldn't eat at, and you couldn't make a decent living. But I can live in peace here. I can walk anywhere in town without fear."

That is not to say that African Americans in the South did not face obstacles, continued discrimination, and violence. Many of the same problems persisted; however, it was clear to all in the 1970s that something had indeed changed forever.

If the civil rights movement had not succeeded in creating a just and harmonious world, it had fostered important, tangible, and lasting changes in the social and political fabric of the nation - particularly in the southern states.

At the same time, conditions in the North were starting to deteriorate.

< A Changing Tide
From the "Rust Belt" to the "Sun Belt" >