Boycotting Jim Crow: The Original Anti-Segregation Movement


Editor's note: Historian Blair L.M. Kelley is the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (University of North Carolina Press). Right to Ride won the 2010 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award, Association of Black Women Historians. Listen to the audio version of this interview here.

PA: What inspired you to write Right to Ride?

BLAIR KELLEY:  It was really sort of a dual idea that drew me to the work.  First, when I was an undergrad and working on my senior thesis, I was trying to do a project on Lani Guinier, who had just been a big part of the news during the Clinton Administration who withdrew her nomination to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. I wanted to add an historical level to the project, which was my thesis in the Department of African American studies. I wanted to look back at voting rights and Black dissent more widely, back maybe to Reconstruction. I had done a lot of research on the subject, and when I got to the turn of the 20th century the research sort of went quiet on me, from what I could find as an undergraduate, and I said to myself, “Wow, that’s weird!” Then I went to my professor and I asked him about it, and he said, “You do the work, you figure it out, you fill in the blanks.” So that kind of approach has always under-girded my attitude to the turn of the 20th century – trying to reconnect the stream of Black dissent from slavery and Reconstruction and on into the 20th century. We have a very vibrant history, and I just knew that there couldn’t be such a rich legacy on both sides of this time period, and that then everyone sort of gave up and quit and stopped trying. I really didn’t buy that argument.

Then I ran into the August Meier and Elliot Ludwick article on the Streetcar Boycotts while I was in graduate school, and it just didn’t make sense. How could you have this whole protest, and yet it was very conservative and not very political or interesting? There's nothing to see here, so move on. I didn’t believe that. Then as I looked at other people’s work to see what they found on the Streetcar Boycotts, everyone seemed to be citing Meier and Ludwick. So I thought that maybe if I went back and fleshed out this time period, if I fleshed out Plessy v. Ferguson and figured out what was really happening, I could find a different story. Not that I got a lot of encouragement from anyone for this project at the time I was a graduate student, but that is where my original questions began.

PA:  This raises an issue you bring out in your introduction about how historians have really latched onto these categories of "accommodation" versus "resistance" but what special circumstances at the turn of the 20th century made these categories fluid?

BLAIR KELLEY:  I teach my students that categories don’t work, that when you think about your own life you think of the dissonances, and that, given these dissonances, you should not think of things according to somebody’s hard and strict guidelines. When you look at real people, real people are messy; they don’t always make sense and they do not always perfectly adhere to a prescribed set of ideals. The notion, for instance, that Booker T. Washington begins to hold sway in the 1890s, and that everyone listens to everything he says and they become Washingtonian and just do his program. Because even when we look at Booker T. Washington himself, you don’t see that kind of coherence, let alone with other people. I don’t think there is necessarily something special about this particular time period.

I do know that they were facing a really formidable challenge, but they didn’t see themselves as automatically losing. We shouldn’t look at the situation in that light – where we know that that they won’t have a fulfillment of this movement. They saw hope and the possibility of defending their citizenship rights, and so they were willing to try to do a variety of different kinds of things to see if they would work. If Washingtonian ideals would help you get a school started in your community, cool, but that wouldn’t stop you from also being angry about the segregation of the streetcars in your neighborhood, and maybe you would boycott too. It’s not that once you choose one thing, then you suddenly can’t participate in another. I think that it is important for all of us to remember the messiness that comes with humanity.

PA:  In the book you write about well-known figures like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois who have their own run-ins with transportation segregation. Interestingly, you note that this became part of their life's work but isn't much a part of our general knowledge about them. Why is that?

BLAIR KELLEY:  I did an exhaustive amount of research trying to figure out where the most famous black activists of the time came out on this question, because I didn’t want to miss anything. I have this freaky obsession with making sure I do not get anything majorly wrong. I was coming to the conclusion that Du Bois was not vocal about this particular movement, that he was very much against the segregation of transportation, but that he was not specifically part of these larger of communities of protest – that he was generally supportive but not really touching down in this movement. But it took me years to where I felt comfortable enough to say that I knew for sure that he didn’t. In the meantime I got a lot of material about his approach.

But for Wells the train and streetcar protests were the starting point. I think it served as her first run-in with brute force and power in her own life. It was at a time when she was doing really well. She was well-educated and she had a new job; she was excited and she was young and doing her very best; I mean she was being a good citizen. And then in the midst of that she gets targeted and called names in court, when she had the bravery to go in there and sue for her rights. So for her I think it was one of her very first political lessons in this time period: that even when people are doing their best they may not be defended, they may not be embraced. In fact, doing your best may make you a target. It helped her, I think, in her later work to lend the critical eye of her own experience to the wider question of lynching, racial violence, and women’s rights.

For Du Bois, it is tough for me to know exactly how he felt about this particular protest, given that I don’t have it from him written down, but I do know that he saw segregation as awful. He is a lovely spokesperson for this time period in terms of how it felt and how it was particularly demeaning, because he always has that lovely insider-outsider eye on the African American experience in the South, and he served as a really great narrator for that experience in particular. But I hope the book doesn’t just stop there; I hope the book does more to tell us about other folks and their struggles against segregation.

PA:  African Americans also found themselves caught in the conundrum that fighting segregation in court wasn't a sure way to win their rights.

BLAIR KELLEY:  I would put it this way. The issue of Frederick Douglass being approached by the Citizen’s Committee in New Orleans was really interesting, given that he had the foresight to know that it might not work, that this could go in the wrong direction. Douglass had a much longer historical sweep and a longer understanding of the disappointments of the courts, being a person who lived through Dred Scott. It must have been truly awful to experience a court engaged in the wholesale stripping of African American rights in that decision. Douglass sort of saw Plessy coming down the line, that this was not going to go in the right direction. And it’s pretty amazing that I was able use him as a key reference point in the Plessy decision, reminding us of an earlier struggle, but also with an awareness that history doesn’t always have to move toward progress.

PA:  How did class difference divide the boycott movement, and what were some of the ways African Americans sought to build unity?

BLAIR KELLEY:  I began approaching the issue of class within the African American community, because it is central to how I think the “read” of Meier and Ludwick fails to fully account for how it must have felt to be in those particular circumstances. Here you had leaders who were turning against poor and working-class folks in their community, in the hope that the argument really was about people doing their best at all times, that if people are more controlled in their behavior, if they are really courteous on the streetcar, nothing bad will happen. We’ll be okay and our citizenship will be protected, if we can demonstrate that we are stellar citizens, and it’s these working-class folks who make us look less than stellar. But in the course of the movement I think a lot of people come to realize – some people know it from the very beginning and some people figure it out as it goes on – that that’s not the question, that segregation is happening in order to target African Americans and create a system of control over people who would achieve equally or above whites in society. So to separate them on the streetcar, no matter if they owned their own business or if they were a doctor or a lawyer, they would all experience the same thing, and their blackness would be a control. Just the stigma of their skin would be the most important thing about them, rather than any individual achievements. So as much people were saying that it’s these poor working-class folks who come home smelly from work on the streetcar who are making it harder for us, they weren’t really the target of these laws. They might be brought up as an excuse but they were not the reason for problem.

On the flip side, Meier and Ludwick also assume that poor and working-class people don’t care about dignity and the way they are treated. They assume that this was an essentially middle-class question. But I had the good fortune to find statistics that proved these boycotts had incredibly high participation and that working-class people were probably using these cars much more frequently than others because it was essential to their job mobility in these expanding cities. For them to participate came at a higher cost, and yet they are at the center of it, and they were only a success because of the presence of working-class folks in these New South cities. I sensed from the very beginning, and I was glad I could prove it with evidence, that there indeed was a tremendous concern by everyday folks with the quality of their everyday experience, and that they didn’t want to open up themselves and their children to demeaning and even violent treatment at the hands of the streetcar conductors.

PA:  Can you talk about the leadership role of African American women in these boycott movements?

BLAIR KELLEY:  African American women served this movement and led this movement in two particular ways. First there was the symbolism, particularly on the trains, of the ladies' cars and the smoking cars, where men held sway and where African Americans were often pushed no matter what their gender was. African American women were fighting for inclusion in the ladies’ cars, which were set aside for “women travelers and their gentleman companions.” When these cases went to court, African American women had the greatest success, because they could argue about the terms in which inclusion was granted on these trains. By bringing their womanhood into the question, at the center of the legal question, they were the ones with the greatest success. I talk in the book about imagining whether Tourgee and the Citizens Committee thought about whether a woman would have been a better candidate to take the case to court than Homer Plessy. 

The other way in which women led and were at the heart of participation in the boycott movement was the way in which African American women used the cars. They needed to ride the cars to get to work, to go to church, and to maintain networks. Laundresses and maids needed to use the cars as a way to get around these cities, which were expanding dramatically during this period. The need for access drove them to a position of leadership, to where it ends up being a women’s question, because women used the cars and they spoke out in nearly every city, not by saying this was particularly a women’s problem and not a male problem – it was about the unique ways in which women needed access to the streetcars.

PA:  Are interracial coalitions a part of this boycott movement?
BLAIR KELLEY:  I think they were, in the larger community, fading away. So a person like John Mitchell, Jr., who was an office-holder in Richmond, Virginia in the late Reconstruction period and in the 1880s as well begins to get pushed out of Republican politics as these coalitions with whites begin to disappear and the Republican Party moved toward being a lily-white organization, where they would boot out Blacks and really reject Black participation in an effort to recruit white voters in an increasingly segregated South. Interracial coalitions were how many of these folks and communities knew how to do politics, and they were slipping away from them; they were just disappearing.

This was a period when coalitions with men who were concerned about the questions of race become more few and far between, with the grand exception of Albion Tourgee who maintained a pretty late engagement and a real conviction around questions of race. But there are fewer and fewer friends of African Americans during this time period, and I think we are catching the end of an era. We can see it in Du Bois’s attempt to bring the Niagara Movement out to Harper’s Ferry to remember John Brown, to recall an abolitionist tradition that was much more interracial and broad, something that they would finally get in the North with the NAACP just a few years later. But in my time period they are sort of struggling and trying to find it and were not able to.

PA:  One of the underlying narratives of this story is that we might tend to see the end of Reconstruction as flowing inevitably into the period of the re-institution of white supremacy and Jim Crow. But I think the way this really works is that they really had to fight to reestablish this system, and that there was resistance to it in various ways all along the way.  Do you agree with that, and does it have any relevance for today’s political terrain?

BLAIR KELLEY:  I think it was very much a fight. It’s also an interesting read on the Southern white politics of the time. They were quite hesitant initially to just go whole hog and write down in law everything they were thinking, so they took incremental steps. They mirror other states in the writing of these laws, so that if you read all of the segregation laws together you see a sort of slow creep of pushing more and more, before Plessy and after Plessy, pushing more and more to be exhaustive and to build on one another, and to respond to the increasing efforts of Black dissent.  And you do see a break and a battle around questions of race.  It isn’t just that slavery continues on unceasingly. There is a big fight in front of them and a challenge in making segregation happen that speaks to the skillfulness of Black dissent, and the wisdom of how hard they were fighting to defend citizenship in the face of really awful and violent odds.

But I would also say that white supremacy vis-a-vis slavery, versus white supremacy vis-a-vis segregation, is a different animal. It is a new thing, and a response to the growth of Black urbanity in the postwar period.  As Blacks moved to the cities they challenged physically, just by being there, the racial order in a really profound way. The success they can have in the city, the mobility they can have, and the anonymity that they can have in these urban spaces is a new thing. So white supremacy has to innovate a more modern way of controlling the Black body. Under slavery and in rural circumstances, the master, the overseer, and the patrollers have personal knowledge of people, and they can control them because they know who they were and they know who owns them, and it has this very one-on-one quality.  But as Blacks move to the cities, they can move away from that feeling, and they are moving to the cities in greater and greater numbers throughout the time period of my book. 

Segregation is a modern response to the question of race and racialized control, one that approximates that "hands on" thing and says that it doesn’t matter what you have achieved here in the city, it doesn’t matter what you are trying to do, you’re still not equal to whites. So segregation is necessary in these urban spaces to address a new challenge that African American are making, in New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah and in other places.

PA:  Is there a way to think abstractly about the nature of these kinds of social dynamics, the politics of resistance, the politics of protest, and the politics of social change in a progressive direction, that we can apply to the contemporary period?

BLAIR KELLEY:  I would say so. You know, just personally, every time I think, "Oh things are not going well," I think of my people and I take courage, because they faced things that are unthinkable today. If one of my students is in danger or threatened, I can call the police and the odds are that the police will come and help me. I can’t imagine living in a time period where that was pretty much not true, where you know you have no assistance from any networks of resistance nationwide and no civil society that supports you and the safety of your family and your students. They faced tremendous odds in trying to make movements, and yet they spoke out in the face of really awful violence, which I think undergirds my understanding of the political climate of the turn of the 20th century – the lynching and the race riots that punctuate the landscape. They saw that and they continued to fight. So it reminds us to be patient. It reminds us that struggle isn’t always instantly rewarded, that sometimes you fail when you struggle, but that you should continue on anyway, and it may take root and blossom in directions that you can’t predict at any given time, or that you couldn’t even see at any particular time. I think the protest community I write about in my book makes me feel much more patient about contemporary challenges and politics, and sad, too, because you hear the same stuff being recycled in an attempt to manipulate the political argument. The race-baiting hasn’t changed that much, and I think the need for bravery remains.

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  • This is no bad article,no bad interview. However,its high time to cease being fuzzy on the historical and current reason for what people like professor Julian Bond calls American apartheid. In a word,it is profit.
    This profit and super-profit extracted from workers is increased(and has historically increased)from "labor in the white skin and labor in black skin",to paraphrase the Karl Marx dictum.
    Labor in the black skin was reduced to serfdom in and around the Plessy era,and labor in the white was kept hungry,savage,idol,indigent,and homeless,goaded and brainwashed to terrorize African Americans to a half slave status.
    In precisely this same era,the brilliant theoretical work of a W.E.B. Du Bois was crushed in Germany by cutting funds from the U.S. side of the Atlantic,for his doctoral work on the agrarian economy in the South,at the University of Berlin,his German professors profusely encouraging him.
    Add to this the political disenfranchisement of both Black and white labor citizenry in the South Jim Crow brought,and we begin how American apartheid shackled the whole nation.
    Even today,we do not see the evil of American apartheid with the clear vision that the young African American lawyer,attorney Frederic L. McGhee saw it with,a co-founder of the famous Niagara Movement,a movement to destroy discrimination and Jim Crow in all its social,economic and political forms,immediately.
    Also,the international perspective of Du Bois,a founder of Pan-African Congresses(and later, the United Nations movement)came perhaps from his progressive Pan-Africanism,as he combined self help with universal cooperation to free a united,democratic world.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/04/2011 8:57pm (10 years ago)

  • Your article reminded me of a paper I wrote when I was a seminary student back in the late 1980's. In my paper I compared the column inches in several conservative Christian periodicals given to demonstrations against Jim Crowism in the 1950's and 60's vs the number of column inches given to anti-abortion protests during the 70's and 80's.

    Unfortunately I did not save my research, but I do remember that the conservative Christian press was largely silent about the civil rights movement but gave quite a bit of coverage to the anti-abortion movement.

    When they did speak of the civil rights movement, there was often a critical tone toward protesters who deliberately broke the law. My how that changed in just a decade or two when covering the anti-abortion movement.

    By the way, I am one of those very rare birds who considers himself to be both a theologically conservative Christian and a Marxist.

    Posted by Paul White, 01/04/2011 8:44am (10 years ago)

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