Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson

By Brooks, Pamela E. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson


Brooks, Pamela E., The Journal of Southern History


Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. By Blair L. M. Kelley. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2010. Pp. [xiv], 256. Paper, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-7101-0; cloth, $59.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3354-4.)

If, in 1955, Rosa Parks was not the first to begin a movement to eradicate segregated seating on public conveyances in Montgomery, Alabama, readers of Blair L. M. Kelley's excellent book, Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, discover who, in fact, were. In the post-Reconstruction South during the era of Jim Crow's formal inauguration, a spate of so-called separate car laws in many municipalities drew the ire of African American citizens who, in response, launched a number of streetcar boycotts, some of which lasted for several years. While these turn-of-the-twentieth-century boycotts may have proved the direct antecedents to the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Kelley rightfully points to protests in New York and New England as the "antebellum roots" of black people's actions against segregated railcars and other forms of transportation (chap. 1). Though nineteenth-century abolitionists Frederick Douglass and the Reverend James W. C. Pennington figure briefly in this work, Kelley's emphasis on southern protests and their leadership is historically significant. In an era that featured lynching and white-on-black violence almost daily, black people's sustained attempts to desegregate southern railroad and streetcar seating, as Kelley insists, represented nothing less than "a valiant, popular fight to defend black citizenship and protect the dignity of everyday life" (p. 4).

Kelley makes a strong argument for the arbitrariness, if not the contradictions, inherent in racially designated seating on trains and streetcars. Contrary to the belief of some in "'the ever-surging spirit of democracy'" that railroading represented in the United States, a black person's access to a clean and comfortable ride on the trains was determined by his or her color, not by an ability to pay (p. …

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