‘Traveling Black,’ a Look at the Civil Rights Movement in Motion

In 1926, while traveling by train from Wilmington, NC, to Richmond, Va., Jamaican-American author JA Rogers was forced to drive Jim Crow’s wooden car, which was usually mounted forward, behind the engine and in front of steel cars intended for white passengers.

“By the way, this is the only case in the South where Black goes first,” Rogers wrote in a commotion. “Going first” in this case meant that Jim Crow’s car served as a protector for white passengers – from the soot and smoke from the locomotive, or from the effects of a crash when the wooden car was unstable. “crushed into piercing.”

In “Traveling Black”, the wonderful story of Mia Bay mobility and resistance, the issue of literal movement becomes a way of understanding the civil rights movement. “Most segregation studies focus heavily on the South and rely more on the history of specific communities than on the experiences of blacks on the move,” Bay writes. “Once one of the most unhappy forms of separation, travel separation is now one of the most forgotten”

Recent books by Candacy Taylor and Gretchen Sorin have explored the role of the car in black American life, and although cars are prominent in “Traveling Black”, the Bay places it in the broader context of the various forms of mobility taken after emancipation. . Starting with trains, it turns to cars, buses and airplanes in successive chapters. Each technology was initially embraced by Black travelers for its ability to offer an escape from the degradation and dangers of the Jim Crow car, only to succumb to the persistent forces of separation.

In the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow, establishing the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Bay traces the arc from Plessy in 1896 to Freedom Rides in 1961, when volunteers traveled by bus across the South to try another Supreme Court ruling, from 1960, which ruled that interstate passengers should served “without discrimination”.

Bay, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose previous books include a biography of Ida B. Wells, is an elegant narrator, presenting strict bets at every turn, also showing that distinction was not just a matter of crushing predictability, but often, and more insidiously, an accidental risk.

Uncertainty and confusion proved to be “crucial difficulties” for travelers as generations of Black Americans sought to navigate a patchwork of divisive laws and customs that differed wildly, not only from state to state, but often at the discretion of a particular ticket collector or ticket collector. conduit. Black motorists could not be sure if they would find a safe place to stop, an ambiguity that proved more pronounced in the North, where the lack of demarcation points meant that any “rules” that existed were silent and vague. As one article put it, “You could never know where insult and embarrassment await you.”

For those whites who faced it, humiliation seemed to be both a way and a destination – a tactic for restricting the free movement of blacks, and in itself a hard target. Before the Civil War, strict segregation made no sense in the South, where white slaves traveled with enslaved blacks. This changed with emancipation, when public space became a disputed territory.

Bay describes companies trying to meet the sensitivities of white passengers. Clearly unhappy with the relegation of the Blacks to the back of the bus, Georgia and South Carolina tried the seat arrangements that forced African Americans to drive backwards. (The experiment was heartless because it caused motion sickness.) In the age of air travel, planes that stopped refueling in the South would let white passengers leave so they could have lunch at the separate airport, while Black passengers would ban it. food in the terminal restaurant, had to stay on the asphalt.

Credit…Schell Photo

Sometimes the discrimination was secretly strategized, behind the scenes. American Airlines employees had to affix a special code to bookings for Black Fliers, facilitating the separation of passengers on flights and preferring white passengers on waiting lists. (Responding to a 1951 lawsuit, American Airlines denied the practice of any discrimination, insisting that “some of our best employees are black.”)

Bay’s account of all this is seamless, deftly redefining the details, giving a prudent look at the bigger picture. While ending formal travel separation was an undeniable achievement, the methods and motivations for doing so were often more realistic than clear. Vice President John F. Kennedy, special envoy for civil rights, used the mild language of the transnational trade clause to argue that discrimination in public accommodation was unconstitutional.

And it was not just a matter of white government officials realizing that racist austerity was morally inapplicable. they also felt the pressures of the Cold War. For a country trying to convince the leaders of the newly colonized African countries that the American system was superior to Soviet communism, Jim Crowe was utterly embarrassed.

“Traveling Black” ends with an epilogue to the modern reality of unfunded public transport, racial profile, and deadly traffic jams. In 2017, the NAACP took what Bay calls the “unprecedented step” in the issuance of travel advice that calls on black drivers to be “extremely careful” when driving in Missouri. Her excellent book deepens our understanding not only of where we are but how we got here.

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