Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides

Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides

Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides

Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides


Black Americans in the Jim Crow South could not escape the grim reality of racial segregation, whether enforced by law or by custom. In Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides, author Derek Charles Catsam shows that courtrooms, classrooms, and cemeteries were not the only front lines in African Americans' prolonged struggle for basic civil rights. Buses, trains, and other modes of public transportation provided the perfect means for civil rights activists to protest the second-class citizenship of African Americans, bringing the reality of the violence of segregation into the consciousness of America and the world. In 1947, nearly a decade before the Supreme Court voided school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen black and white activists embarked on a four-state bus tour, called the Journey of Reconciliation, to challenge discrimination in busing and other forms of public transportation. Although the Journey drew little national attention, it set the stage for the more timely and influential 1961 Freedom Rides. After the Supreme Court's 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated public transportation violated the Interstate Commerce Act, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other civil rights groups organized the Freedom Rides to test the enforcement of the ruling in buses and bus terminals across the South. Their goal was simple: "to make bus desegregation," as a CORE press release put it, "a reality instead of merely an approved legal doctrine." Freedom's Main Line argues that the Freedom Rides, a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, were a logical, natural evolution of such earlier efforts as the Journey of Reconciliation, their organizers following models provided by previous challenges to segregation and relying on the principles of nonviolence so common in the larger movement. The impact of the Freedom Rides, however, was unprecedented, fixing the issue of civil rights in the national consciousness. Later activists were often dubbed Freedom Riders even if they never set foot on a bus. With challenges to segregated transportation as his point of departure, Catsam chronicles black Americans' long journey toward increased civil rights. Freedom's Main Line tells the story of bold incursions into the heart of institutional discrimination, journeys undertaken by heroic individuals who forced racial injustice into the national and international spotlight and helped pave the way for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.


In his 1941 essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Richard Wright wrote about the various “Bigger Thomases” he had come to know in his life and who served as the models for his character in Native Son. Bigger, crushed by fear that stemmed from his plight as a black man in America and the rage that manifested itself as a result of that fear, inadvertently kills his new employer’s daughter and tries to cover the evidence by stuffing her body in the furnace of her family’s home. Inevitably, Bigger’s role in the crime is discovered, and he has to go on the run. He is eventually caught and sentenced to death, but not until after a long court scene in which Thomas’s lawyer blames Bigger’s deeds as much on society as on Bigger, who is thus depicted as a victim of a society that impelled him to his crimes.

Wright encountered one of these “Bigger Thomases” on the Jim Crow streetcars of the Deep South. Unlike those who passively acquiesced to the mandates of Jim Crow, with its sections for blacks and sections for whites, this “Bigger” “always rode the Jim Crow streetcars without paying and sat wherever he pleased.” Wright recalled one day when the conductor challenged “Bigger,” telling him, “Come on nigger. Move over where you belong. Can’t you read?” “Bigger”‘s response was, “Nah, I can’t read.”

The conductor flared up: “Get out of that seat!” Bigger took out
his knife, opened it, held it nonchalantly in his hand, and replied:
“Make me.” the conductor turned red, blinked, clenched his
fists and walked away, stammering: “The goddamn scum of the

When the conductor turned away, a group of Negroes overheard the angry white men gathered at the front, wondering how to address this clear affront to not only law and tradition but also white authority. One of the . . .

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