Southern Blacks Voted With Their Feet
By David Henderson
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.
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.