Besides a dire economic situation, Southerners, as they had done during the Great Migration, were also fleeing Jim Crow. Rev. James McCoy, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Mission Baptist Church in Chicago, who, like the members of his large congregation, was originally from Mississippi, recalled:
We suffered. We didn't have. We worked land that we thought we owned and after a while found out that we didn't own it. We could go to town and we had to wait until everybody else passed by and then we could walk on the street. It was a suffering life. If we walked up to a counter we had to wait until everybody else was gone...then we could buy what we wanted and paid more than anybody else. And it was always a problem in our way of life. We suffered to get this far.
Although lynching had greatly diminished by 1935 - there were eighteen lynchings that year - violence was still prevalent in the South. People were threatened, beaten, fired from their jobs, and publicly humiliated. A letter published in the Chicago Defender stressed:
Dear Sir, I indeed wish to come to the North - anywhere in Illinois will do so long as I'm away from the hangman's noose and the torch man's fire. Conditions here are horrible with us. I want to get my family out of this accursed Southland. Down here a Negro man's not as good as a white man's dog.
With little hope of redress in the justice system, African Americans were at the mercy of abusive employers, landlords, and almost anyone bent on depriving them of their rights. Notwithstanding the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which guaranteed them the right to vote, the vast majority were effectively disenfranchised by restrictive rules that applied only to them. Rigid segregation in public spaces - signaled by the constant presence of "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs on water fountains, restroom doors, hospital wards, transportation, and housing - was a constant humiliation and a reminder that blacks were second-class citizens.
Compared to the South, the North, although segregated in practice if not by law, appeared appealing. World War II veteran John Wiley was working in Memphis at the U.S. Army Depot. On the segregated bus ride home from work one day, a white man demanded his seat. Wiley refused. The other black riders loudly voiced their support:
The bus driver told him [the white man] "You ought to come up here to the front 'cause you gonna get in a whole lot of trouble". I said, "He sure gonna get in a lot of trouble!" I was so angry at them. I had a switchblade knife in my pocket. I went home and told my wife.... We left the next day and came here to Chicago and I've been here ever since.