David R. Henderson  

Southern Blacks Voted With Their Feet

David Balan Reviews The Cas... Henderson on BBC Newsday...


Millions of black people in the Jim Crow South were prevented from voting. That's the bad news. Fortunately, there's some good news. They were able to vote with their feet and millions of them did. In doing so, they benefited themselves both economically and politically, and also benefitted millions of white people in the North with whom they traded. What happened in the United States in the last century is dramatic evidence that voting with one's feet is much more powerful than voting at the ballot box. That experience has lessons for today's controversy over immigration to America.
This is the opening paragraph of Dwight R. Lee's Econlib Feature Article for February, "Voting with Ballots versus Voting with Your Feet," February 5, 2018.

This is nice timing for Black History Month. I recommend the whole thing.

Another excerpt:

Jim Crow laws included literacy tests that disproportionately hurt black people. First, they were hurt because they had inferior educational opportunities. Second, the tests contained questions that were more difficult than the questions given to white people, if given to whites at all. Even when black people passed the tests, they still confronted discriminatory grading, poll taxes, obstacles to getting through the registration process, white-only primaries for choosing Democratic candidates (the only ones relevant in the South at the time), and threats of violence. As a result, voting among blacks plummeted. In 1896, for example, there were more than 130,000 registered black voters in Louisiana. In 1904, that number was down to 1,342, a drop of over 98 percent!

As noted earlier, that was the bad news. But southern black people had another way of voting, a way that millions of them took full advantage of: voting with their feet. Moreover, not only males but also females could, and did, exercise this way of voting. Although not as convenient as casting a ballot at a local polling place, voting with their feet had several advantages over voting at the polls, especially for black people in the Jim Crow South. The most obvious advantage was that, as opposed to ballot voting, voting with their feet assured people of getting what they voted for. The most direct benefits southern blacks realized from voting with their feet were economic, and, thus, they were motivated to become more informed and make wiser decisions than southern whites who voted with ballots. The extent of this voting with their feet between about 1915 and 1970 was so dramatic that it was given a name: the Great Migration. I consider first the benefits to the black migrants and then discuss other benefits from the Great Migration that were distributed more broadly.

Check out how Dwight connects his points with Hayek and with Pinker and how he connects this issue with one current controversy about immigration. Also, notice his striking table showing how the Great Migration changed demographics around the United States.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
E. Harding writes:

What's actually surprising is not how much Blacks voted with their feet, but how little. For the half-century following the abolition of slavery, there was almost no Black migration from the South to the North (the percentage of Blacks in the United States residing in the South moved from 91% in 1870 to 89% in 1910). In fact, the South grew more Black (as a share of the population)! From 1930 to 1970, the population of Mississippi barely increased. From 1870 to 1910, it soared (and became more Black) as White supremacy was being re-instated, despite the state remaining the poorest or second-poorest in the country.

Bill writes:

In the text, the Frederick Douglas quote should be dated 1865, not 1965.

[Thanks. I've fixed it.--Econlib Ed.]

WRD writes:

This is really missing the point:

But southern black people had another way of voting, a way that millions of them took full advantage of: voting with their feet.

This is a pretty vile standard. Does this feet meets the standard set forth in the Constitution? Are we not all protected from:

den[ial] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Whatever happened to the original way of voting?

David R Henderson writes:

Thanks. I’ve sent the change to the overall editor for the site.
This is a pretty vile standard.
It’s not a standard. The article is pointing out that they were very effective in voting with their feet.
Whatever happened to the original way of voting?
Did you read the article? The original way of voting was foreclosed to them. That’s why, thank goodness, it was good that they were able to vote with their feet.

JK Brown writes:


That is a nice sentiment but in the early 1900s, local government imposed a social mission upon businesses within their jurisdiction. The alternative was to vote with their feet, or violence. Gun control laws came to the fore to prevent Blacks from choosing the latter.

On the upside, the Blacks that voted with their feet were not just leaving apartheid, they also were escaping the feudal nature of Southern society that persisted until the 1960s.

During the late 1800s, private streetcar companies in Augusta, Houston, Jacksonville, Mobile, Montgomery, and Memphis were not segregated, but by the early 1900s, they were. Why? City ordinances forced them to segregate black and white passengers.
--Williams, Walter E.. American Contempt for Liberty

Alan Goldhammer writes:

David - thanks for the pointer to the article. I was surprised that Professor Lee did not reference Isobel Wilkerson's wonderful book, "The Warmth of Other Suns" that documents the Great Migration. A nice snapshot of the book appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2016

The migration had a marked impact on college sports as southern universities did not integrate their athletic teams until the late 1960s. Many of the black athletes born and raised in the south migrated to universities in the north to play football and basketball. I remember the football game between an integrated USC and an all white Alabama team in 1970 where USC won in Birmingham 42-21. there is a really nice documentary on that game and it's lasting impact that was on the Showtime network several years ago.

David R Henderson writes:

@JK Brown,
Thanks for the street car example. This is told in greater detail in the article on discrimination that is linked to in Dwight Lee’s article. Here’s the link again.
@Alan Goldhammer,
Great story. Thanks.

mike davis writes:

Dwight's article did cause me to think about something that I’d never fully considered: Why did southern whites so strongly support Jim Crow? Two possibilities:

1) It could be just another example of rent-seeking/protectionism. Of course Jim Crow made the south a poorer place but it also meant certain groups of white people got a larger share of the smaller pie.

2) It could be an example of expressive voting. The Civil War was a horrific event, especially for the South. Despite all the nonsense about “states rights” and “our Southern heritage”, the War was about slavery. It must have been nearly unbearable for white southerners to admit that they suffered so much to defend something so horrible and so they adopted this mythology of white supremacy. As you’ve discussed many times (actually, way too many times) a vote almost never has tangible consequences and so it’s a very cheap way to express your beliefs.

How to sort this all out? Well, it would be interesting to know whether poor white people and wealthier white people exhibited about the same support for Jim Crow.

If the first explanation is true—if it’s all about money--poor white people are going to favor Jim Crow and rich whites oppose it. Poor whites are most likely to be harmed by competition with poor blacks. Rich white people benefit from more efficient labor markets. (By the way, this seems to be the way the politics of immigration reform are shaping up.)

If the second explanation is the most important, then I think we’d see the reverse—rich whites being more strongly attached to Jim Crow. At least that would be the case if one or both of two things are true: (1) rich whites are more emotionally connected to the antebellum south and so derive more utility from expressive voting, (2) the marginal utility of income is so much bigger for the rich than the poor that the rich are willing to sacrifice increased income to express themselves.

mike davis writes:

@E Harding
I know almost nothing about interstate migration in the late19th/20th century (or any other century for that matter), but is it reasonable to think that some of the population changes in the south were caused by whites who were also voting with their feet? Even if they didn't care about racial justice, some (probably many) whites were harmed by Jim Crow--the relative poverty in the south that was a consequence of Jim Crow limited their opportunities. If whites were leaving in about the same proportion as blacks, the black white percentages wouldn't change by much. (Again, don't know if that's really what happened. Just wondering.)

Nicholas Weininger writes:

One of the key points Wilkerson's book makes is that for black people in the South, voting with one's feet also carried physical safety risks. White Southerners knew that the Great Migration was a risk to "their" labor supply and actively tried, often through violence or threats of violence, to stop blacks from leaving. Those willing to keep others from the ballot are often willing to infringe their other liberties as well.

David Seltzer writes:

They voted with their feet. Not emphasised, the draw North was highly correlated with the demand for labor. Steel mills in Gary, South Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and auto plants in Detroit offered wages that were double what a Black person earned in the Jim Crow South. I grew up in Northwest Indiana. Refugees from WWII settled and almost immediately found work at Inland Steel, US Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. It was the same for Hispanics coming to "El Norte." Our schools were not segregated. My classmates were ethnically diverse and there were no facilities that demanded "Whites Only!" My classmates reflected the labor force of their parents who demanded their children get an education. It seems free markets can defeat racism.

Conscience of a Citizen writes:

In that essay, Dwight R. Lee writes:

This is relevant to the current immigration debate. Many Americans fear that if the government allows more immigrants into the United States, many will vote for more government intervention of the sort that exists in the places they left. But I believe that the vast majority of immigrants come here not so they can vote, but so they can make money in what is still a land of opportunity. In that sense, they are like southern blacks during the Great Migration. Getting the vote is nice, but having economic opportunity is even more important. That suggests a possible solution that might satisfy those who oppose more immigration because of their fear of how those immigrants will vote: let them in, but increase the time period before they can become citizens to 10 or 20 years.

And David R. Henderson thinks that is worth special attention. It is, but mainly for the fact that illustrates how it does not matter why people migrate-- they automatically influence politics wherever they end up. For example, in Detroit, Michigan. And all over the United States.

However, Mr. Lee's essay includes the following passage which is much more relevant to the question of mass immigration:

By reducing the labor supply in the South, the Great Migration also increased the opportunities and wages of the blacks who didn't migrate. According to Boustan: "Overall, the gains for black workers attributable to migration from the South were about 2.5 times larger than [Author's note: Boustan's numbers acutally show that the gains were 2.5 times as large as, not 2.5 times larger than] the losses due to competition in the North. Black earnings nationally may have been further raised by higher wages for black workers remaining in the South, as migrant departures reduced competition in the southern labor market"4 (2015, p. 26).

Mass-immigration boosters routinely assert that immigration has negligible effect on wages. If that were true, then emigration could not have any effect on wages either. Yet Dwight R. Lee tells us that reducing labor supply in the American South (by Black emigration) caused wages to rise substantially there. Obviously, increasing labor supply would have prompted wages to fall. Therefore we have a proof, by contradiction, that claims that immigration does not reduce wages are false (and proceeding from academic economists, mendacious).

(Of course, Lee does note that Black migration caused wages to fall in the North, though not so dramatically because the ratio of migrating to stationary workers was less.)

(It is not important, but I will note one error by Mr. Lee. He writes that the 15th Amendment applied only to males, but that is erroneous. The 15th Amendment protected female voters against racial discrimination just as it did male voters, though there were far fewer (but not zero) female voters in 1870.)

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top