How Automobiles Helped Power the Civil Rights Movement

Montgomery bus boycotters had a secret weapon: cars

Montgomery Bus Boycott
Cars gather outside the Montgomery County, Alabama, jail as police begin bringing in religious and political leaders indicted in the bus boycott. AP Photo/Gene Herrick

The driver glanced nervously into his rear-view mirror. The police motorcycles he had noticed a few blocks earlier were definitely trailing him. He glanced at his speedometer, determined to follow every traffic law. Then, as he stopped to let a passenger out of his car, the motorcycles pulled up toward him and it began: an ordeal mirrored every day by African American people hassled by the police for minor infractions. Two armed police officers demanded he get out of the car, then arrested him. Soon a patrol car arrived to take him to jail.

As the police cruiser turned down the dark streets of Montgomery, Alabama, he worried the police might beat him and leave him for dead. Instead, they took their time as they drove.

It was 1956, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been arrested for the first time.

The grounds for King’s arrest were that he had supposedly been driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. But he knew the real reason he was being hassled: The civil rights leader had been using his car to help participants in the Montgomery bus boycott.

King was one of hundreds of people cited that week in 1956—people who used a carefully orchestrated carpool system to help smash the segregated bus system in the Alabama capital. Black-owned automobiles helped ensure the historic boycott’s success.

“Without the automobile, the bus boycott in Montgomery would not have been possible,” says Gretchen Sorin. Her book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights tells the sweeping story of African Americans and automobiles—a tale of mobility and mobilization that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement. A PBS documentary based on the book will air this fall.

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

In Driving While Black, the acclaimed historian Gretchen Sorin reveals how the car―the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility―has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road.

African American mobility had always been political; slaveholders tried to limit the movement of enslaved people, Southern states attempted to reinstate laws that limited black travel during Reconstruction, and when that came to an end, public transportation emerged as a proving ground for Jim Crow segregation. By the 1950s, African Americans from the South had endured decades of inferior “separate but equal” conveyances that reinforced white supremacy.

The Montgomery bus boycott was intended to challenge those unequal structures with the power of the purse. As Sorin writes, white Montgomery bus drivers were known for being particularly vicious, and the “self-appointed vigilante enforcers” of the humiliating segregation system went out of their way to remind black passengers of their supposed inferiority.

But African American protesters had a powerful weapon on their side: cars. Automobiles helped fuel the Great Migration, and black people exercised their mobility whenever they could. By the 1950s, Sorin notes, about 475,000 African American families are thought to have owned at least one car, half of which they purchased new. People who were prevented from buying their own houses due to redlining and other discriminatory practices instead invested in sanctuaries with wheels.

“The automobile gave African-Americans freedom from humiliation and the ability to go where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go,” Sorin explains. Under segregation, she says, African Americans lived under constant frustration and fear. “One of the things that was great about having an automobile was that your children could be safely ensconced in the back seat. You’d be driving up front, and there was no opportunity for people to say anything horrible.” Private car ownership offered the opposite of segregated buses, where African American passengers were forced to sit in the back or stand in deference to white passengers.

By the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of the bus in December 1955, African American leaders had been planning a city-wide bus boycott for months. Organizers knew that to make a major bus boycott work, they’d have to ensure that on-strike riders had a way to protest without losing their livelihoods.

“Think about how much territory a bus line covers,” says Sorin. “It’s miles and miles of road, and people have to get to work. If people are used to taking buses, not many of them can walk to work. People had to continue to get to work or they would lose their jobs.”

The Montgomery Improvement Association, the community organization that organized the boycott, saw private automobile ownership as a powerful alternative to the bus systems. As important as their list of demands was their plan for keep the boycott going. At first, they benefited from black taxi organizers who charged ten cents, the same fare as the buses, for rides in town. But when city officials forbade them from charging less than $0.45 per ride, protesters changed tactics and established a private taxi service of their own.

The elaborate carpool relied on a fleet of 15 “rolling churches”—station wagons donated to black churches by Northern supporters that were harder to seize than privately owned cars—to serve the 17,000 African American bus riders who took the buses twice every day. The service was like a carpool on steroids and relied on a combination of logistical smarts and improvisation. A black farmers’ association rented a safe parking lot to the fleet for cheap, and organizers arranged for a dispatch system. When white insurance companies refused to insure the cars, an African American insurance agent based in Montgomery finagled insurance through Lloyd’s of London instead. “It was no small effort to manage this fleet of vehicles,” says Sorin. Private drivers participated, too, and those who didn’t help as part of the formal pool arranged rides for one another and picked up hitchhikers.

Drivers needed something else: funds for gas and maintenance. To get them, they relied on donations and the unpaid labor of women within the movement. “Women stepped up,” says Sorin. Women who worked thankless domestic jobs in white homes opened their own homes to civil rights workers from the North, drove others to and from work, and spent their evenings and weekends cooking for bake sales and food sales. “They sold sandwiches, They sold chicken. They sold cake and pie. And they made money for the movement.” Often, says Sorin, their white customers had no idea their purchases had helped fund the boycott.

Those who did carpool during the boycott had to stay vigilant, especially when W.A. Gayle, Montgomery’s white mayor, instituted a “get tough” policy that involved monitoring boycott-friendly drivers for any real or imagined traffic infraction. He even announcing a false settlement in the hopes of breaking the boycott.

“Every single time an African American family went out on the road, they were doing something potentially very dangerous,” says Sorin. “They were challenging white supremacy. They were challenging the status quo. They were challenging segregation. While it was dangerous, it was also courageous.” Boycott or no boycott, the seemingly everyday act of getting behind a wheel was symbolic for black drivers.

Eleven months into the boycott, though, the carpools came to an abrupt halt when Montgomery slapped them with an injunction claiming they were a private enterprise operating without a legal permit. The legal move shook King and other organizers, but the maneuver had come too late for the segregationists. On the same day a federal court upheld the city’s ban, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bus segregation as unconstitutional. As historian Doron Shultziner notes, the injunction could have “literally stopped the wheels of the car-pooling system and of the Montgomery bus boycott” if officials had realized they could use it earlier.

Instead, the boycott only lasted another month and in December 1956, more than a year after Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, ended in triumph. The Civil Rights Movement’s footsoldiers had proved their willingness to walk to work rather than give their money to a bus system that discriminated against them—but they got plenty of help from a fleet of four-wheeled vehicles of progress.

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