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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Through a reexamination of the earliest struggles against Jim Crow, Blair Kelley exposes the fullness of African American efforts to resist the passage of segregation laws dividing trains and streetcars by race in the early Jim Crow era. Right to Ride chronicles the litigation and local organizing against segregated rails that led to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the streetcar boycott movement waged in twenty-five southern cities from 1900 to 1907. Kelley tells the stories of the brave but little-known men and women who faced down the violence of lynching and urban race riots to contest segregation.

Focusing on three key cities--New Orleans, Richmond, and Savannah--Kelley explores the community organizations that bound protestors together and the divisions of class, gender, and ambition that sometimes drove them apart. The book forces a reassessment of the timelines of the black freedom struggle, revealing that a period once dismissed as the age of accommodation should in fact be characterized as part of a history of protest and resistance.

Excerpt

In February 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and eighty-eight other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) willingly turned themselves in for arrest. A grand jury had indicted King for violating an Alabama antiboycott law. The protest leaders knew that segregationists, led by the state chapter of the White Citizens’ Council, would stop at nothing to halt their protests, but King and the MIA did not know that they were not the first to organize boycotts to protest segregation in their state. Indeed, the law the MIA leaders were charged with violating had originally been designed to crush black efforts to boycott segregated city streetcars in Montgomery in 1900 and Mobile in 1902. The original 1903 law prohibited “boycotting, … picketing or other interference with … lawful business,” just the kind of protests that had been launched by Rosa Parks’s December 1955 refusal to give up her seat and the collective efforts to avoid segregated buses in the city. The law criminalized any organized efforts to protest, prohibiting the distribution of leaflets and buttons and making it “unlawful to print or circulate any notice of boycott, boycott cards, stickers.” Police could charge boycotters with vagrancy as they waited for alternative rides. 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.” Protest leaders could be punished with a high fine or months of hard labor. Although unaware of this long history, Parks, King, and the other indicted protest organizers were reviving a protest fifty-five years old, connecting them to . . .

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