The early 20th century Appalachian migration to Great Lakes cities created big tensions, but did it help bring down the New Deal coalition?
In Washington Monthly‘s September-October issue, Nationhood Lab’s director reviews a compelling new book on this forgotten great migration, Max Fraser’s Hillbilly Highway.
Readers of American Nations know the U.S. is an awkward federation of regional cultures which don’t see eye to eye. So it’s not surprising that when a huge number of people from one region suddenly migrate to another it often leads to friction and conflict in the short and middle term. The cultural mores, religious affiliations, and political attitudes of the newcomers often differ from those of their established neighbors, as can ideas about child-rearing, social conduct, freedom, liberty, and justice. The experience changes everyone.
Scholars have tackled some of our great 20th century population transfers: the Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South to the cities of the Great Lakes region and from Tidewater to the Northeast (in which 6 million took part); and the Dust Bowl exodus, which saw at least 250,000 “Okies” abandon the southern Great Plains for Southern California. But scant attention has been paid to the largest of them all, the movement of 8 million poor rural whites from the Upland South to the industrial cities of the Great Lakes between 1910 and 1969.
It’s “a readable and enlightening academic account that sympathizes with the migrants as the underdogs of the tale, a group he argues was misunderstood and unfairly maligned by both the midwesterners they’d moved in with and the Democratic Party they arrived supporting,” Woodard writes. “But Fraser’s account is framed too narrowly to allow him to conclusively prove this tantalizing thesis” that the migration laid the groundwork for the rise of one of the greatest class alignments in U.S. political history, the advent of Reagan Democrats in the 1980s and Trump Democrats in 2016 in the Yankee and Midland Midwest.