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Impact of White Flight on the Civil Rights Movement

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

After World War II, Americans moved to the suburbs. This ubiquitous experience wasn't something equally accessible to all, however. In this lesson, we'll examine white flight and its connection to postwar civil rights.

White Flight

The city has played an important role in American lives. Today, the goal of many people is to move to the city, get an apartment, and open a hipster coffee shop or something. In the 1920s, the goal was to move to the city, get a job in a shop, and endorse a local speakeasy. But there have also been times when people moved out of the cities. One of the most notable was in the 1950s and 1960s, when people abandoned the cities in droves and headed out to a new form of American community: the suburb.

But who was moving to the suburbs? This latest iteration of the American dream wasn't one that everyone shared in equally. The exodus of certain Americans from the cities paralleled the arrival of others, and the difference came down to race. After World War II, many African American families abandoned the Jim Crow South and moved into urban centers of the North and West. In fact, from 1940 to 1970, about 4 million African Americans followed this trend. Many more also moved from rural to urban areas within the South. But for every black person to arrive in the city, a white family left. Demographic patterns in the USA were changing, but in very specific and racially defined ways. We call this migration of white families out of the cities white flight.

White Flight and Desegregation

When looking at the trends of white flight, it's hard not to see the influence of racial sentiments. As black people arrived, white people left. For a long time, historians have tried to explain this. Why were white families fleeing the cities? One traditional way to explain this has been the civil rights movement. Black soldiers returning from World War II expected to be treated as heroes alongside white counterparts, but finding segregation still heavily enforced led to a new wave in civil rights that quickly garnered results. President Truman desegregated the American military in 1948, and in 1954 the Supreme Court found segregation of public education to be illegal in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown v Board was one of the first great triumphs for desegregation
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Desegregation threatened to undermine the established social and racial order within many American cities. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, continued victories for civil rights were met with greater movement of white families from the cities to the suburbs. In this sense, white flight was something of a resistance to the changing racial relations in the United States. It was a way to maintain the status quo.

Desegregation and the Suburbs

However, this doesn't explain all cases of white flight. For one, many cities in the North and West had already legally desegregated public education long before Brown v. Board of Education. On top of that, most cities were so divided into ethnic and racial neighborhoods that a white person was very unlikely to see a black, Asian, or Latino denizen anywhere near their block. So, why leave the cities?

Postwar suburban prosperity was often racially exclusive
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The answer is in the postwar economic boom. When soldiers returned from WWII, they were coming back to a country that had endured four years of wartime rationing, and before that a decade of the worst economic depression the country had ever seen. But now the economy was not only finally recovered, but flourishing. Plus, former soldiers had access to home loans, education, or business loans through the GI Bill.

In their eagerness to buy homes, something often unavailable to their parent's generation, these young families flocked to the suburbs, the definitive symbol of postwar prosperity. However, this was the generation that grew up in the Depression; they were scared to lose this security. So, suburbanites started looking for risks that would threaten the value of their suburban homes.

Early on, there was a fear that desegregation would result in lower property values, or would encourage lawmakers to apply inner-city property taxes to the suburbs. This fear was felt particularly by the companies that built and managed these communities. For this reason, suburbanization became something seen largely as a privilege of white Americans. Desegregation posed a risk to the symbol of suburban, postwar prosperity.

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