Immigration restrictions helped lead to Martin Luther King’s success

The success of Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement was made possible in part through restrictions on immigration. With these restrictions, companies could no longer rely on cheap imported labor, instead having to compete for workers through increased wages and better working conditions. This is a reprint of a post first published by NumbersUSA on the 15th of January.

By Roy Beck, founder and CEO of NumbersUSA

On this day, the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., let’s remember the influence of immigration restriction on the effectiveness of the movement that he epitomizes.

At the 1963 March on Washington that included King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, the lead organizer and head of the event was A. Philip Randolph (pictured below), one of the greatest civil rights leaders of the 20th century. The president of the Sleeping Car Porters union had a long history of advocating for immigration restrictions as part of his five decades of advancing Black economic interests.

A. Philip Randolph in 1963

When Congress was preparing to pass legislation in 1924 that dramatically reduced the annual immigration quota, Randolph wrote in The Messenger of Harlem:

. . . we favor reducing it to nothing . . .

Randolph, as the nation’s leading labor organizer of Black workers, joined a multitude of Black writers and publishers of that era who decried the Great Wave of immigration that they believed had pushed the descendants of slavery to the back of the hiring lines for four decades, according to Howard University historian Daryl Scott. Many felt a total immigration time-out for a few years would give descendants of slavery an opening to establish themselves in new occupations.

We favor shutting out the Germans from Germany, the Italians from Italy, the Hindus from India, the Chinese from China, and even the Negroes from the West Indies. This country is suffering from immigrant indigestion.

It is time to call a halt on this grand rush for American gold, which over-floods the labor market, resulting in lowering the standard of living, race-riots, and general social degradation. The excessive immigration is against the interests of the masses of all races and nationalities in the country — both foreign and native.

— A. Philip Randolph (1924)

It is important to note that Randolph’s plea for a time-out on immigration was intended to help not only Black Americans, but all Americans, including the Germans, Italians, Indians, Chinese and West Indians who already were in the country. Like most Black leaders, he opposed discrimination against immigrants in this country regardless of their origin.

(Randolph was not being xenophobic or nativist or racist; he simply was asking for less foreign immigration. NumbersUSA stands in the same tradition, opposing discrimination against immigrants and opposing inserting race as a factor in immigration policy).

Congress did not heed Randolph’s call for a total moratorium on immigration. But it did dramatically reduce the annual flows that had often exceeded a million. From 707,000 in the year of the 1924 law, immigration dropped to 294,000 in 1925, falling farther in the next decades leading up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The annual averages were:

  • 53,000 a year in the 1930s
  • 104,000 a year in the 1940s
  • 252,000 a year in the 1950s

Contrast that with the around 1,000,000 a year in the current 1990-2020 period.

The 1924 law was flawed and is not the model for legislation we need today, except in its ability to dramatically reduce the flow of foreign worker competition. That immigration reduction was essential for enabling the historic Great Migration and other key improvements in the lives of the descendants of slavery.

Restrictions Enabled The GREAT MIGRATION

There is much to suggest that the 1924 immigration restrictions started processes that were an important contributor to the success of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the ending of legalized segregation.

That is not to pretend that the 1924 to 1964 period was an easy life for most descendants of American slavery. Jim Crow apartheid continued in the South, while myriad forms of discrimination were wielded in the northern cities. In some ways, harsh social and political treatment of Black Americans worsened even as — perhaps because — they were experiencing dynamic economic improvements which were resented by many of their fellow citizens.

But the lower immigration and tightened labor markets brought about economic changes that steadily increased the economic and political power of Black Americans and convinced more and more business leaders to shun segregation.

The most visible result of reducing immigration was that northern industrialists could no longer fill all their extra jobs with new immigrants and had to finally open them up to the descendants of slavery in the South. More than 6 million southern Blacks moved to the North and West during the historic Great Migration. It was something that freed slaves had begun doing after the Civil War. But that Black internal migration was cut short by the Great Wave of immigration that allowed bigoted northern employers to recruit workers primarily from Europe instead of from the Black (and White) labor surpluses of the economically disadvantaged American South. After 1924, a sustained 40-year period of moderate immigration opened a broad path for economic advancement, and the descendants of slavery took it.

The conditions in the South that caused Black workers to want to leave had been there all along. But only when immigration was reduced for a long period did the labor market allow them to leave.

Stanford economic historian Gavin Wright argued:

The out-migration of Blacks from the South after 1940 was the greatest single economic step forward in Black history, and a major advance toward the integration of Blacks into the mainstream of American life.

African Americans made significant gains in industrial employment, particularly in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries. It was the importance of Black labor and consumption to the U.S. economy that helped create space for the successes of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

When Black Americans finally got federal protection for voting rights in 1965, they had already enjoyed twenty-five years of rapidly rising wages. On average, their incomes still remained well below those of White Americans. But over that twenty-five-year period leading up to the new civil rights laws, Black workers’ real wages rose almost twice as fast as the rapidly rising wages of White workers.

Restrictions Aided Worker Movements

Randolph, the labor unionist and socialist politician had advocated strongly for immigration restrictions after World War I because he believed them necessary for the advancement of Black Americans in all aspects of their lives.

Indicating his confidence in restrictionism the first year after the 1924 law was enacted, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly Black labor union. The Pullman company responded with violence and firings. The labor market had to tighten considerably more before his union met with success, and the Great Depression of 1929-41 made the task considerably more difficult.

Howard historian Scott has written that further restriction was one of Randolph’s tools:

In the 1930s, Randolph supported legislation to exclude non-Americans from working on railroads as servants. The Pullman Company had often used Asians to weaken the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ union-recognition drive. In 1933, Randolph supported legislation introduced by Sen. Clarence C. Dill of Washington that forced railroads to hire only American citizens in service positions when engaged in interstate commerce.

After years of bitter struggle, the Pullman Company finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935, and agreed to a contract with them in 1937. Employees gained $2,000,000 in pay increases, a shorter workweek, and overtime pay.”

Using the influence he gained from his union’s economic power and networking with other unions, Randolph is given credit for pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to ban discrimination in the defense industries. He was then part of a group behind President Harry S. Truman ending segregation in the armed services in 1948.

The multi-racial United Packinghouse Workers union was another major leader in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was only after the 1924 immigration restrictions that Black workers and recent immigrants in the industry were able to unionize and negotiate to turn horrific low-paid slaughterhouse jobs into one of the better middle-class occupations. White members locked arms with their Black co-workers in knocking down racial barriers in locales across America, and the union supplied critical funding for the civil rights movement. (Unfortunately, the middle class qualities of meatpacking occupations collapsed after mass immigration was renewed in the 1980s)

Need For Black Labor Created Business Openness To Civil Rights

The growing Black population outside the South began to organize politically. Not only did Black northerners protest their own conditions but they applied the key pressure on northern lawmakers to cease support for the southern system of racial apartheid.

While the mass movement out of the South greatly increased Black incomes from the northern jobs, the out-migration also improved the economic bargaining power of those Black workers who remained in the South. With far fewer foreign workers arriving and so many southern workers moving out, the value of Black labor increased considerably in the South. Over time, employers had to compete by offering better wages and working conditions for Blacks.

Between 1940 and the 1960s, the South lost most of its surplus labor. Once again, the fortunes of poor southern Whites and Blacks were tied. What few people realize is that the White migration to the North was also very large. Under tight-labor conditions, the South finally had to mechanize and improve education, working conditions, and wages for the Black and White workers who remained.

In 1940, historians say, state governments in the South still had been largely organized around protecting White supremacy. But thirty years later, they were primarily concerned with development as part of a national economy. To the extent that segregation policies retarded industrial development and outside investment, business leaders were susceptible to appeals to break down racial barriers.

Sociologists Piven and Cloward have concluded that . . .

. . . economic modernization had made the South susceptible to political modernization.

Concluded the economic historian Gavin Wright:

This change in the fundamentals of southern society ultimately made possible the success of the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.

Tight labor conditions have always been the best friend the descendants of American slavery ever had. What a fitting tribute on this year’s MLK Day if Members of Congress would commit to making all immigration decisions based on how they will tighten — rather than loosen — the labor market.



This post was originally published on NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA’s blogs are copyrighted and may be republished or reposted only if they are copied in their entirety, including this paragraph, and provide proper credit to NumbersUSA. NumbersUSA bears no responsibility for where our blogs may be republished or reposted. The views expressed in blogs do not necessarily reflect the official position of NumbersUSA.

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4 thoughts on “Immigration restrictions helped lead to Martin Luther King’s success

  1. Thank you for this piece.In this day of heightened emotions on many fronts, especially immigration, facts and reason always takes a back seat. One’s initial response is try to swing the emotional pendulum in the opposite direction from hate to love. I have always believed love does not trump hate as hate destroys and kills and love cannot exist in a vacuum. The true response must be evidence based reason as we have here. Besides it a bit difficult to brand such icons as Martin L. King and Philip Randolph as ‘bigots.’ We really need to wake up to the enormous complexities of the immigration issue and look at the, often extreme, downsides.

  2. Here’s what Engels said about the effects of Irish immigration:
    If only we studied history seriously, we’d be surprised, over and over.

    Same story, everywhere, but the liberal left won’t see it. I’ve lost friends when I’ve pointed out what this post says, which is that mass migration hurts the workers. Some of the people who are outraged by this (“we MUST WELCOME!!”) are soi disant leftists who employ foreigners to clean their homes cause they’re cheaper.

    1. I consider myself a liberal of the centrist variety but agree with your premise. In the end it’s not about people’s character (there are always good and bad) or how cheap labor stimulated the economy. To me the bottom line is does it preserve or harm biodiversity. We depend on our natural resources which basically form the principle of our resource base. Right now we have used up the interest and are now depleting the principle. In the end no one, immigrants or natives, will survive.

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