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Deep immigration reductions helped pave way for civil rights gains in 1960s | NumbersUSA - For Lower Immigration Levels

Home > Hot Topics > Foreign Worker Timeout > Deep immigration reductions helped pave way for civil rights gains in 1960s

Deep immigration reductions helped pave way for civil rights gains in 1960s


One of the greatest contributors to the huge civil rights advances in the 1960s was the fact that the United States had a tight labor market that increasingly needed Black American workers, particularly in the South.

And a key reason for the tightness of the labor market was the dramatic reduction in annual immigration flows ever since 1921, according to historians of that era.

During the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, it is important to be aware of the role that Spiked Mass Immigration has repeatedly played in stalling economic progress among the descendants of America's shameful slavery system.  And it is a time to acknowledge how the economic, political and social advances of Black Americans in general accelerated when annual immigration numbers were reduced throughout our history.

Nearly everybody of every ideology today acknowledges that a tragically high percentage of the members of our national community who are descendants of slaves remain in poverty.  The unemployment rates, poverty rates and average economic assets for Black Americans are all far worse than they are for the average American.

I have long argued for reducing immigration to tighten labor markets as one of the top moral claims on our political system, particularly to level the playing field for Black Americans. Unfortunately, nearly every elite power force in America is conspiring to loosen the labor markets still further with more immigration, making the reduction of persistent Black poverty almost impossible.

I addressed these issues in my 1996 book published by W.W. Norton & Co, "The Case Against Immigration."  I include an excerpt below.

Today's Democratic and Republican leaders, and the religious, union and business leaders who are clamoring for "comprehensive immigration reform" are intentionally or recklessly unintentionally fighting for a continuation of extremely loose labor markets that always have been tools for the repression of the descendants of America's slaves.

To have any part of this 50th anniversary celebration include calls for more immigration is as inappropriate and offensive as extolling the benefits to the economy of the labor costs savings of the slave and Jim Crow economies.

Spiked Mass Immigration has always been a tool of the rich and powerful to subjugate America's working classes, especially Black American workers.

Keep in mind that the tight labor markets of the 1950s and 1960s were the result of very low immigration since the 1920s and of the low birth rates of Americans during the 1930s and 1940s.  Businesses had to be especially innovative to get more production out of each worker to justify the higher wages that were necessary to compete for workers in such a tight labor market.  All of America benefitted from the virtuous economic circle of those times.

You can read the full chapters on the history of immigration and Black American economics at:

A really short outline is here:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington came to believe that the white power structures would not give full political rights to Black Americans until they truly needed Black labor. Along with most other major Black leaders, he decried the Great Wave of Immigration from Europe as keeping the labor market so loose that industrialists did not need the freed slaves and their descendants.

But when WWI interrupted the flow of immigrants from Europe, industrialists across the north sent recruiters throughout the south to hire from the surplus labor pool of Black workers who had been trapped in semi-servitude on plantations ever since the Great Wave of Immigration began in the 1880s and halted the movement of freed slaves into the industrial north.

After the war, immigration spiked again but only for a short time. Congress stopped the majority of immigration with legislation in 1921 and 1924.  The Great Depression obviously retarded the march of progress for Black Americans, but the huge drop in foreign labor after 1914 caused businesses to engage in a 50-year recruiting campaign of the previously underemployed Black Americans.

By the 1950s, America's businesses were so in need of Black American workers that the segregationist laws of many states were seen as an impediment to economic development. This was one of the building blocks forming a foundation upon which courageous civil rights leaders would construct the political changes that culminated in the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation.

ROY BECK is Founder & President of NumbersUSA

(The following is excerpted from "The Case Against Immigration," by Roy Beck, published by W.W. Norton & Co., 1996)


Dare we imagine that the foundational act -- restricting immigration -- that freed the descendants of slavery from the southern plantations might also allow those now trapped in the slums to find vitality in life?

Considerable scholarship even suggests that the 1924 immigration restriction-because it enabled the black migration-was the foundational act for the ending of segregation, as well.

"The outmigration of blacks from the South after 1940 was the greatest single economic step forward in black history, and a major advance toward the integration of blacks into the mainstream of American life," says Gavin Wright, the pre-eminent historian of southern economics.

Between 1940 and the 1960s, the South lost most of its surplus labor to northern business recruiters. Once again, the fortunes of poor southern whites and blacks were tied. What few people realize is that the size of the white migration to the North after the reduction in immigration actually was larger than that of the great black migration. Under tight-labor conditions, the South finally had to mechanize and improve education, working conditions, and wages for the black and white workers who remained.

In 1940, state governments in the South were largely or ganized around protecting white supremacy. But thirty years later, they were primarily concerned with development on the part of a national economy. To the extent that segregation policies retarded industrial development and outside investment, business leaders were susceptible to appeals to break down racial barriers.

"This change in the fundamentals of southern society ultimately made possible the success of the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s," says Gavin Wright.

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....Is it possible that America could rekindle its commitment to help the impoverished descendants of slavery?

Nicolas Lemann believes that, despite "an undeniable strain of racial prejudice in its character," the United States also has a conscience that will respond to the horror of the urban ghettoes which now are among the world's worst places to live. He mentions two conditions which he says traditionally have helped the ghettoes and which don't require much in the way of government programs or money:

1. "For most of our history, the issue of race has been linked to the issue of nationhood. During periods of fragmentation-periods when a multiplicity of local, ethnic and economic interests held sway-racial problems have been put on the shelf. It is during the times when there has been a strong sense of national community that the problems have been addressed."

2. "The ghettos partake in the fluidity of American society ... their condition improves in tight labor markets and worsens in more competitive ones."

Both of Lemann's preconditions for helping the black ghettoes would be enhanced considerably by the simple act of cutting immigration back to the average annual flows of below 200,000 that existed from 1924 to 1965.

To Lindsey Grant, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, the moral obligation to do that is clear:

"The nation a generation ago, in rare unity, launched perhaps its greatest moral crusade: to eliminate racism and to bring blacks into the economic mainstream. Since then ... we have inadvertently done the one thing that could most effectively sabotage that crusade. We have allowed the almost unfettered entry of competition for entry-level jobs, at which the blacks could be starting their entry into the economy.... It is not enough to argue that the immigrant-hungry and fearful of deportation will work harder. One must also answer the question: The blacks are Americans; how do we bring the increasingly alienated, restless and isolated ghetto blacks into the system?"

On the night of l1 March 1993, listeners of the liberal alternative radio station WBAI in New York City heard Vernon Briggs of Cornell University make a similar plea. He said African Americans in the northern and western cities are "losing the struggle" because of the massive wave of immigration:

"The treatment of the African-American population is a national blemish of the highest order, and every policy ought to be judged on the following criteria: that it does no harm to the African-American population."

Briggs acknowledged that there are a lot of different opinions about what the government should do to help the "failed black third." But everybody should be agreed on what the government should not do: Washington should not do anything that harms black Americans, "and that's what our immigration policy is doing.”

Later that year, in December, Eugene McCarthy addressed a crowded Senate hearing room on the subject of immigration. The former senator and Democratic presidential candidate had been one of the chief co-sponsors of the 1965 revision that led to mass immigration. The elder statesmen explained that the increase in immigration had been entirely unintended. He said the increases have been immensely harmful to the country and should be rolled back.

A reporter queried McCarthy about how the country could live up to its moral obligations if it cut immigration drastically.

McCarthy didn't hesitate in his response. The moral priority for the United States, he said, remains that of addressing the descendants of two centuries of slavery and another century of racial apartheid who remain in the underclass. To the extent that large-scale immigration interferes with meeting black Americans' needs, he stressed, the immigrant must wait.

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