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Article-a-Day #68: Smithsonian-How Automobiles Helped Power the Civil Rights Movement

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…

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.