Alford A. Young Jr. is a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor, Edgar G. Epps Professor of Sociology, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Sociology, and professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, and of Public Policy. He researches African American men from low-income backgrounds and how they perceive various aspects of social reality, especially their employment interests. He also serves as associate director of the Center for Social Solutions and the faculty director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity’s Anti-Racism Collaborative at the University of Michigan.
As part of LSA’s three-part Q&A series highlighting the year 1963, Young shares his take on the employment landscape for African Americans during that time, how the Great Migration played a role in work opportunities, and how that monumental time period still impacts society today.
LSA: How would you describe the work opportunities, or, as you say, the “World of Work” for African Americans during that time period?
Alford Young: The ’60s, in particular the early 1960s, was a very interesting moment because nationally, there were more opportunities than today for working-class Americans. That had been the case throughout much of the 20th century, but it certainly got better after World War II and continued afterwards. However, for Black Americans, it was a unique situation because the very work opportunities they had sought in urban cities began to disappear as they arrived there.
The idea was that life would get better for Black people who had left the South to come to the North. However, this period in time turned out to be the end of the secure world of work around blue-collar work prospects. So although I don’t think many realized it just yet, it was the beginning of the end of good times in manufacturing for Black Americans as it still remained good times for white Americans. For many Black people, having left the South and leaving the Jim Crow oppressive, explicit racist nature of Southern living, they thought that whatever they encountered in the North, Northeast, or the Midwest would be much better.
But looking back at that period, it was clear that working-class, blue-collar America wasn’t ready to embrace too many African Americans. At that point in time where they started to get to these places, work opportunities began to dry up. Black workers didn’t realize that because they were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, which was supposed to legally and socially advance their prospects. We wouldn’t know about the changing work situation and how bad it became until decades later. However, at the time it seemed like Black people were on the verge of something great. Dr. King is leading, people are protesting in the South, and it is the beginning of [Civil Rights] legislation. Times look good while you’re living in them. Ultimately, they were not as good as they should have been. So that’s the great contradiction of those times.
LSA: Were there certain industries where Black workers had opportunities to thrive?
AY: The service and manufacturing sectors. Service employment had always been a continued space of security for Black people. They could either do domestic work, custodial work, tending to people of privilege in country clubs or places where they essentially serviced the elite, such as railroad Pullman Car porters, well into the 1960s.
In any sector that involved delivering personal or human services to others, Black people had greater work opportunities. Throughout the 20th century, Blacks began to find work opportunities in industries such as manufacturing: the automobile plants in the upper Midwest, some of the agricultural plants in the lower Midwest, and some of the factories in the Northeast. However, those sectors began to dry up.
By the ’70s, the idea that there would be secure employment in those areas began to be in jeopardy. Blacks could seek good, old-fashioned service work, but they began to see it was not always the most economically rewarding. Most importantly, there was no real social mobility. If you were a custodian or homecare worker, there wasn’t much you could move up into. In manufacturing, there was some room for social mobility, but again, that was the arena that was both the most rewarding when it existed, but soon became the most threatened, within 10 years after 1963.
LSA: How did the Civil Rights Movement, in particular events in 1963, change employment opportunities for Black people and other marginalized groups?
AY: Well 1963 became the first year where a lot of formal federal legislation started to unfold. There was a sense of, “we can push the government to open doors for us.” What was interesting in terms of that moment, you began to see formal legislation brought to Congress around housing, employment, and education. You had Brown v. Board almost a decade before, but in terms of bringing bills to Congress, 1963 was a hallmark time when that began to happen. So this notion that the federal government could play a fundamental role in social change … Congress was taken to be the place where good things could happen. That is what was powerful about the early ’60s in general, and 1963 in particular.
LSA: How did social location impact their world of work?
AY: Throughout the 20th century, and certainly by the 1960s, there are formal Black communities in the North, Northeast, and Midwest, and so you had the most robust, most developed Black, urban neighborhoods. Everything I say seems to capture a contradiction, the positive with the negative. Here’s the case where that happens as well. By the ’60s, you had these robust urban arenas, Black people are located in the North, Northeast, and Midwest, and that becomes a site for understanding who Black folks are and where they are. It’s no longer, they only live in the agricultural South, but the industrialized North and Midwest, too. But with that, you also had a very robust notion of urban communities in despair—poverty, joblessness, crime, the kind of things that became the way Americans imagined urban communities throughout the latter third of the 20th century, got cemented in the early ’60s. So even though these spaces were seen as the sites to escape the Jim Crow South, the downside is without durable employment lasting in these environments and white Americans largely moving away from these neighborhoods, everything that we talked about for the past 50 years about urban squalor and despair became centered in these urban communities. So social location mattered in that sense.
People didn’t see city life as that promising anymore. In the 1950s, you went to the city to get a job and live a good life. I was born in the ’60s and grew up in New York City. My parents expected to raise my sister and me with this notion that things will get better. Some things got better, but I saw a lot of urban poverty growing up too because that’s where we lived. Even though my family was quite comfortable, the community was not.
LSA: How have things changed from 1963 compared to now, in terms of work, and in what ways are they still the same?
AY: What remains the same is that there is still a robust challenge for Black people to be fully incorporated into contemporary work. In the ’60s, the issue was, “can we get into manufacturing in a durable and secure way?” and what happened is the plants left the cities and the country. Detroit is the prime example of the dissipation of the manufacturing sector. That has been the historic and contemporary problem: How do we get Black Americans linked to whatever is the contemporary economic arena of opportunities?
The change has been what is considered a “good job,” where the “good job” is and what you need to get the “good job.” By the end of the 20th century, this notion of manufacturing work being where folks should be is no more. It’s now about the white-collar, service sector. How do we get into business, management, science, and technology? Those are the fields that matter the most [now]. 1963 was one of the last years where many people felt you could finish high school, learn a trade, and you could find a decent-paying job. Now the notion that a trade is the ticket to success—even if some people are starting to talk about that again—is not what most people are talking about. Most people are not talking about vocational skills. As we think about economic opportunity, that is what’s radically different now. For some Black people, the challenge is how do we catch up with the contemporary world of work? How can we make them aware of and develop the opportunities into these modern work spheres?
LSA: Is there anything you would like to add?
AY: I am mindful that, given where I am in my life, I always thought of 1963 as not that long ago. It was the year in which the real change happened for Black people, thinking there was going to be possibility and the doors were going to be open to, we have to fight harder. After ’63, you see the Black Power Movement and the urban unrest begin. I grew up with this notion that ’63 was the last safe year in America. Kennedy was assassinated and everything began to unravel. I have kids in their 20s, and they look at the ’60s as ancient history, but it’s not that long ago. The people marching then were making work and life opportunities available for us now, and that always resonates with me. What happened in that period is fundamental to where I am and where many other Black people are today.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.