I've missed a story in telling this larger story. Her name is Thelma Glass, she died about a year and a half ago, and she was -- your lack of shock is impending -- a teacher.
Some pictures of media coverage of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I was wandering around, all innocent like, thinking I had done a reasonably complete service to the less-told elements of the story behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when I got a message from a diarist about a book.
Have you seen this book, he asked. No, I said. And I looked.
And my eyes floated to something horrifying:
It was even illegal for local black newspapers to publicize the protest; in an almost exasperated tone, the law forbade ''publishing or declaring that a boycott ... exists or has existed or is contemplated."I knew that travel segregation had existed for decades in many places, but these speech prohibitions -- because another law forbade boycotting at all -- told me I had more work to do.
Funny thing about searching for boycott law news from the early 20th century:
My Og the piles of hits. Turns out a sizable part of the country was boycotting, and had been for decades, because the eight-hour workday was not yet standard (289).
And what do you do when you want better labor rights? You strike, picket and boycott.
In the South, by contrast, the boycotts focused not on workers' rights but on the right to frankly be included in society -- except when they didn't:
James Monroe Smith, a Georgia plantation owner and self-styled paternalist, refused to allow Black tenant farmers on his land to market their own crops. Smith's biographer asserted that "Knowing when to sell cotton was not for everybody, and certainly not for Negro tenants."(7)Black unionizing in the South, 1905. And check out the women's involvement several paragraphs later. And here's black union work in the South in 1881, and with white membership and support.
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, we find "Colonel Jim" deploring the fact that his tenants have organized their own underground cotton market! What's more, angry tenants were burning down barns, liberating convict laborers, and accusing Smith of being a "peon master" in court. When Smith offered a $500 dollar reward to "bring the culprits to justice" he received no assistance from local Black residents.
What happened on James Monroe Smith's plantation was not an isolated event. A Black newspaper in 1905 reported that Black agricultural workers in one rural Kentucky county had formed "A Colored Labor Trust," and "are reported to have entered into a combination and agreed not to work in harvest fields for $1.50 a day, the price offered by farmers."
You know something phenomenal? One thing practically no source discusses is the economic impact on the drivers of the vehicles:
The role of Negroes in the transportation system of southern cities in the late-nineteenth century is illustrated by the fact that the drivers on the Savannah horsecars were Negroes until the system was electrified and white motormen were substituted in 1892. Savannah Tribune, Sept. 3, 1892.
I was going to talk about 1900s free speech cases, but the results of my research kept tugging me in the direction of the 1900s transportation segregation boycotts, like this excellent but brief (compared to books) treatment of Richmond's experience.
The question I then started trying to answer, amid getting sidetracked by black farm unionization efforts and Haymarket reading and everything else, is why 1900 for those street car boycotts.
The answer begins with the implementation of strict segregation laws in 1900, and as in the case of corporate opposition in the Plessy era -- excuse me, other corporate opposition -- corporate America didn't want to comply. Why? Go ahead and blink now, and open your mouth wide, because the answer is probably still going to surprise you:
Nearly everywhere, the streetcar companies opposed enactment of the Jim Crow laws by citing the expense and difﬁculty in enforcement and the fear of losing Negro customers. Often the companies were able to defeat such bills or postpone their enactment.Get one answer -- "Why were the boycotts in 1900 and not, say, 1898?" "Because mandatory segregation began in 1900." -- and five new questions spring up:
1) Were these local companies or chains? (Local company, local sentiment, local ownership and workers, local homes bombed. National company, potentially harder to bomb management's house.)
2) Statistically, how much of their business was from black riders?
3) What caused the law to be enacted in 1900?
4) Defeat? How?
5) Did the companies work with the black community to fight these segregation laws?
And to think I started today planning to research free speech and boycott law in the 1890s. The important thing was transportation:
In every city where it has been found advisable to separate the races in the street cars the experience has been the same. The negroes ... have invariably declared a boycott.— Mobile Daily Register, 1905
The next time someone asserts well-meaningly (or not) that the black civil rights movement started in 1955 or whatever, would you kindly redirect them to the runaway and suddenly free slaves of 1687? Blacks and whites have been fighting this shit since they've had something to fight. This notion that blacks suddenly woke up in the 1950s is not only ludicrous, it's harmful.
Meanwhile, could someone please e-mail the state of Tennessee and politely inform it that Tennessee was so late to the Jim Crow train game that Massachusetts had repealed its Jim Crow train law 38 years before Tennessee thought to have one at all? Thanks! (Also Virginia, and I suspect the more I look, the more I'll see governments not having half a clue about history.)
Also meanwhile, a bit of reverse racism (764) cropped up at least once, and I can't help but laugh, even despite the dialect writing -- which national wire service writing style guides now expressly forbid except briefly or to establish local color:
The negroes seemed to enjoy the predicament of the whites hugely, and along toward noon many of their conveyances could be seen driving about the streets with a space in the rear some two feet in length blocked off by a piece of cardboard bearing the legend, "For Whites Only."
So, reading all of this, I have concluded a few things:
1) Where boycotts and protests occurred early -- before the 1890s -- they were often successful. Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York. I'm confident I'm missing one.
2) Where boycotts and protests occurred in the 1890s and 1900s, they were often successful temporarily for at least black community sentiment and corporate financial losses. (A Nashville boycott failed partly because the streetcars blacks bought to compete with the segregated cars couldn't handle city hills.)
3) Something big must have changed. How do you go from having white corporate America on your side -- if only because of financial ramifications -- to not?
The easy answer is to claim that violence from the KKK subdued Southern blacks, who just sort of accepted their fate and decided being alive and having few rights was better than being dead. One author proposes that two incidents of violence, one in Texas and one in Georgia, sealed the slow and inevitable deal.
But the boycotts -- not protests -- resulted in not confrontations but a decided lack thereof. Black newspapers of the day exhorted the community to be peaceful in boycotting segregated transport. However, segregated transport was only part of the picture.
Violence absolutely existed. Lynching numbers alone show that, and one of the sources for these diaries (the Kentucky desegregation effort) attests to a police officer watching whites beat up a black teenager and acting -- to arrest the black teenager -- only when the black teenager started to fight back. But remember that the transportation companies were fighting segregation with, not against, the black community. Violence was everywhere in the South anyway; it appears to have stopped sit-ins and other trouble (voting, attempts to buy property, having a lisp around a white woman) once the black community had accepted white community-desired segregation.
Alternately, those sources aren't bothering to talk about violence because it's so obviously part of the problem that it's understood.
Another possibility is tactical. Let me point you to something on 768-769:
Ministers often represented the Negro community in dealings with whites, especially the South. Such clergymen were influential among Negroes because they could obtain small favors from the white community. They were influential not because Negroes chose them, but because they were selected by prominent whites who utilized the clergy to control the Negro community.The letter ran July 4, 1905.
Yet the individuals who stood out most prominently among the opponents of the boycotts were certain African American Episcopal and especially the Baptist ministers. ... The Reverend T.O. Fuller of Memphis, principal of the Howe Institute and later a chronicler of Baptist church history, wrote a letter to the [Memphis] Commercial-Appeal and advised Negroes that "Law-abiding citizens can do nothing else but respect" the provisions of the state law and obey the conductors.
Why would Fuller and other black community leaders support segregation? Because, and I could be misinterpreting the research here, it meant they wouldn't have to keep fighting something they didn't think was necessarily still a significant goal.
"That can't be the whole picture," you're thinking. I agree: Why 1907?
But look at this, too:
1891-1907: Blacks keep fighting the same fight for transportation equality. Whites keep making progress so blacks have to fight to get to where they had been before.
That's not progress. That's treading water. So why not just stop fighting and accept the peace of not getting what you want? Fuller -- and others -- had seen blacks consistently losing Reconstruction-era rights (middle of 34). So he could focus on continuing to fight transportation rights, or he could focus on workers' rights and other financial issues, like making a living beyond washing clothes or being a porter.
King was fighting for the same thing forty-odd years later.
The third-party Populist uprising of [the 1890s] threatened conservative Democratic rule in the South. Many of those blacks who could still vote, and the number was considerable, joined the Populist insurgency. To check this political rebellion and prevent blacks from wielding the balance of power in close elections, southern Democrats appealed to white solidarity to defeat the Populists, whipped up anti-Negro sentiment, disfranchised African Americans, and imposed strict de jure (by law) segregation.
"They left as though they were fleeing some curse."Otherness. That's what it boils down to, psychologically. We see it today in anti-brown legislation, in anti-queer efforts. People whose way of life or thinking about life has been taken from them -- as in the South in 1865 -- seek out something to latch onto to preserve that better-than-thou feeling. Men who can't get jobs better than driving a trolley can beat the black passenger who demands rights. Illiterate voters can scoff at those who look different and fail literacy tests.
"Oftentimes, just to go away ... is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put."
When presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama talked of people embracing guns and antipathy toward people who aren't like them, that analysis was not news to anyone who has studied sociology or history for more than about five seconds. We have most of us likely felt that desire to be better than whatever other we decide is worse, and whether we felt better for five seconds or five decades, we are better for understanding it so we can combat it.
I am as a human better than no other human. I as a researcher am a better researcher than most humans, particularly given illiteracy rates. I as a father am better than those fathers you see doing whatever bad things in the news. But I as a human -- as a maker of carbon dioxide, as a bearer of chromosomes -- am better than no other human.
We as a country are getting better at being what we should be. Some of our humans, in believing they are better than other humans, still need to learn some things. But the results of our triumphs and failures have gotten us closer to allowing each of us humans to find what we do best culturally and to do it without being unduly encumbered.
For while any of us is unduly encumbered, all of us are weaker.