Jim Crow vs. Economic Liberty


Sunday's New York Times featured a long review of Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Walker's new book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Here's how the review begins:

In the winter of 1916, as Americans read the news of unimaginable slaughter in a distant yet rapidly spreading European war, it was easy to overlook stories like the one in The Chicago Defender reporting that several black families in Selma, Ala., had left the South. A popular ­African-American weekly, The Defender would publish dozens of such stories in the coming years, heralding the good jobs and friendly neighbors that awaited these migrants in Chicago, even printing train schedules to point the way north. Smuggled into Southern railroad depots by Pullman porters, dropped off by barnstorming black athletes and entertainers, The Defender emerged as both cheerleader and chronicler of an exodus that would lead about six million African-Americans to abandon the states of the Old Confederacy between 1915 and 1970. "If all of their dream does not come true," it confidently predicted, "enough will come to pass to justify their actions."

Writing at Forbes, legal scholar and Reason contributor Richard Epstein uses this passage as an opportunity to clear up some confusion about the nature of the Jim Crow South. For starters, Epstein explains, it was nobody's idea of a free market:

Why the clandestine activities?  Answer: because helping African-Americans leave the Old South was an illegal activity under state law….

Quite simply, there is no way to economically exploit individuals by letting them leave.  The entire system of segregation has, in some quarters, been grotesquely treated as though it were some form of market system, when in fact it was anything but.  The key feature of a market system is ease of entry and exit, which puts pressure on all economic players.

By blocking exit from the South, the segregationists sought to limit the options open to blacks, whom they could exploit on the farm, in the city, and everywhere in between.