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

In 1926, while traveling by train from Wilmington, N.C., to Richmond, Va., the Jamaican-American writer J.A. Rogers was forced to ride in the wooden Jim Crow car, which was typically placed toward the front, behind the engine and ahead of the steel cars reserved for white passengers.

“This, by the way, is the only instance in the South where the Black man goes first,” Rogers wrote in a wry aside. “Going first” in this case meant that the Jim Crow car served as a buffer for white passengers — from the soot and smoke that billowed out from the locomotive, or from the impact of a crash, when the wooden car’s rickety construction would be “crushed to tinder.”

In “Traveling Black,” Mia Bay’s superb history of mobility and resistance, the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large. “Most studies of segregation are centered largely on the South, and are more grounded in the history of particular communities than in the experiences of Black people in motion,” Bay writes. “Once one of the most resented forms of segregation, travel segregation 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 though the automobile figures prominently in “Traveling Black,” Bay situates it in the broader context of the various forms that mobility took after emancipation. Starting with trains, she turns to cars, buses and planes in successive chapters; each technology was initially embraced by Black travelers for its potential to offer an escape from the degradation and dangers of the Jim Crow car, only to succumb to the stubborn forces of segregation.

In the notorious case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court gave legal sanction to Jim Crow, establishing the doctrine of “separate but equal”; Bay traces the arc from Plessy in 1896 to the Freedom Rides of 1961, when volunteers traveled on buses through the South to test the enforcement of another Supreme Court decision, from 1960, which decreed that interstate passengers should be served “without discrimination.”

Bay, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose previous books include a biography of Ida B. Wells, is an elegant storyteller, laying out the stark stakes at every turn while also showing how discrimination wasn’t just a matter of crushing predictability but often, and more insidiously, a haphazard jumble of risks.

Uncertainty and confusion turned out to be “defining difficulties” for travelers, as generations of Black Americans tried to navigate a patchwork of segregationist laws and customs that varied wildly, not just from state to state but often at the discretion of a particular ticket collector or railway conductor. Black motorists couldn’t be sure if they would find a safe place to stop, an ambiguity that turned out to be more pronounced in the North, where a lack of segregation signs meant that whatever “rules” existed were unspoken and unclear. As one article put it, “You could never know where insult and embarrassment are waiting for you.”

For those white people who meted it out, humiliation appeared to be both a means and a destination — a tactic for circumscribing Black people’s freedom of movement, and a cruel objective in its own right. Before the Civil War, strict segregation didn’t make much sense in the South, where white enslavers traveled with the Black people they enslaved. That changed with emancipation, when public space became contested terrain.

Bay describes companies going out of their way to cater to the hair-trigger sensitivities of some white passengers. Apparently not satisfied with relegating Black people to the back of the bus, Georgia and South Carolina tested seating arrangements that forced African-Americans to ride facing backward. (The experiment was nixed because it caused motion sickness.) In the era of air travel, planes stopping to refuel in the South would let the white passengers off so that they could eat lunch in the segregated airport, while Black passengers, barred from eating at the terminal restaurant, had to stay on the tarmac.

Sometimes discrimination was strategized in secret, behind the scenes. Employees for American Airlines were supposed to affix a special code to reservations for Black fliers, making it easier to segregate passengers on flights and give preference to 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 Negroes.”)

Bay’s narration of all this is seamless, skillfully recounting the granular details while offering judicious glimpses of the bigger picture. While ending formal travel segregation was an undeniable achievement, the methods and motives for doing so were often more pragmatic than pure. President John F. Kennedy’s special deputy for civil rights used the bland language of the interstate commerce clause to argue that discrimination in public accommodations was unconstitutional.

And it wasn’t simply a matter of white government officials realizing that racist strictures were morally indefensible; they were also feeling the pressures of the Cold War. For a country that was trying to persuade the leaders of newly decolonized African countries that the American system was superior to Soviet Communism, Jim Crow was an abject embarrassment.

“Traveling Black” ends with an epilogue on the contemporary reality of underfunded public transit, racial profiling and fatal traffic stops. In 2017, the N.A.A.C.P. took what Bay calls “the unprecedented step” of issuing a travel advisory urging Black motorists to exercise “extreme caution” when driving in the state of Missouri. Her excellent book deepens our understanding of not just where we are but how we got here.

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