Book Review: “Driving While Black” – Not A Jet Smooth Ride

Stephanie bought me this book a couple of months ago, so it’s somewhat coincidental that I’m posting this review now. But it’s always a good time to make an effort to better understand the black experience in America, as difficult and painful that may be. This book was an eye-opener, especially as it relates to the black experience in the automobile. I now understand why African Americans favored certain brands of cars; it turns out there were very practical or even critical considerations as well as the more commonly-assumed ones.

The car in America  is seen as the great defining instrument of the 20th century, affording freedom of travel, drastically affecting our built environment, culture, and economy, and affording women greater independence. For African Americans, the car had additional significance, as it provided a vehicle with which to escape the humiliating segregation of public transport and other racist strictures endemic to not only the South, but the whole country. It afforded opportunities to travel in relative comfort, expand horizons and hopefully join the rest of Americans on the road. It became an instrument in the fight against segregation. But it also brought its unique set of perils. Breakdowns, being caught in the wrong neighborhood or town, police stops, overnight accommodations, crashes, medical emergencies, restaurants and tourist destinations all presented degrees of humiliation, harassment, deprivations, physical violence, or worse. Driving while black has not exactly been a smooth ride.

Freedom of movement for white Americans was such a fundamental right that it was not even considered for inclusion into the Constitution. The Supreme Court numerous times reiterated that the right of the freedom of movement was based on the privelages and immunity clause of the Constitution, and that this authority was situated with the states, not the federal government. This was the basis for the many “black codes”, which controlled and criminalized mobility for slaves, free blacks, and later for emancipated blacks, resulting in the Jim Crow laws that varied from state to state.

The term “Jim Crow”, which came to be used to describe the segregation laws enacted in the South after Reconstruction ended in 1877, dates back much earlier, and not just in the South, where blacks couldn’t dream of riding a railroad or having any freedom of movement until after Emancipation. An 1838 newspaper article makes reference to the “Jim Crow” car of The Eastern Railway serving Boston and New England. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglas was repeatedly ejected from its cars, as he was from trains all over the North in his many years of travel. The courts consistently upheld the right of the private train companies to set their own discriminatory policies, despite the state constitution’s guarantee of equal rights.

After Emancipation there began the great migration to the North, Midwest and West, by train, bus or preferably by car, once that became available. Eager to leave the poorly paid jobs in the segregated South, African Americans sought better opportunities in the industrialized cities. And although there were improvements on a number of counts, the North hardly turned out to be the promised land.

It became a ritual for many black families in the North to return annually to their family homes in the South, and increasingly so by car to avoid the dirty old train cars dedicated to them. Even if blacks were allowed to board integrated cars in the North, upon reaching state lines with Jim Crow laws, they were forced to move into the colored car, which invariably were old, and had no amenities.

Traveling by car eliminated those humiliating circumstances, and brought a new degree of freedom of movement. But it was not nearly as stress-free as we might think of in terms of road trips. Each trip required careful planning, with the trip carefully worked out on maps to avoid getting lost in the wrong place. Food and refreshments were packed and carried, as restaurants often did not serve blacks, or if the did, it was only take out at the back kitchen door.

The author, who grew up in a middle class family and lived in a comfortable neighborhood in Newark vividly describes her father’s anxiety about the annual trip to South Carolina to visits family. Ironically, getting lost in the more rural parts of New Jersey was one of his greatest concerns, as that part of the state had a very bad reputation with black motorists.

And if it wasn’t bad enough not being served in restaurants, black travelers invariable encountered visual assaults on the roadsides from chains like this one and many others.

The supplies in the car usually included a “pee can”, as one could not count on being allowed to use the bathroom at gas stations. In fact, some gas stations simply refused to serve blacks. Esso was the exception, with an enlightened post-war corporate policy to welcome blacks, although not all dealers honored it fully. Esso soon became the gas brand of choice for black motorists.

There were much greater dangers on the road than just finding a place to relieve oneself. Black motorists were not uncommonly harassed or assaulted if they found themselves in the wrong town or neighborhood, especially after dark. Many towns all over the country made it clear that they were “sundown towns”, meaning that a black person had better not find themselves in it after sunset.

These were not limited to the South; in fact sundown towns were particularly common all over the Midwest. Villa Grove, Ill. had a whistle on its water tower that blew every day at 6PM to warn blacks that it was time to leave, as many were employed there as domestics and such. The custom did not end until 1998.

There are many documented stories of blacks suffering harassment, physical harm and even death at the hands of white mobs or vigilantes while on the road, especially after dark. This family was was passing Clinton High School in Tennessee in 1956 on a Friday night when a Life magazine photographer documented their terror at the hands of a mob.

They were roughed up, their car damaged, but were lucky to escape with their lives. Others weren’t. And the police looked the other way of course, when they weren’t actively engaged in abusive behavior themselves. African Americans made a point to drive ten miles below the speed limit and astutely observe every traffic sign, as nothing was feared more than being pulled over by the police.

There was another great danger: requiring medical care from a crash or other emergency. Driving was dangerous enough back then, but when many hospitals either didn’t serve blacks, or only in special wings, the risks compounded after a crash. Getting an ambulance that would carry blacks required finding a black funeral home which also typically provided ambulance service, and which then had to find a colored hospital or one that would accept them, often a great distance away. The great singer Bessie Smith was just one of many African American celebrities and notables that died due to inadequate medical treatment after a car crash.

The challenges of finding overnight accommodation and restaurants that served blacks created great logistical challenges, especially to those that had to travel professionally. Some, like the singer Mahalia Jackson (above), bought the biggest and most comfortable car available (a Cadillac, in her case) and tried to sleep in it after a performance while being driven to the next one.

Having to sleep in their cars on the roadside as a consequence of not finding accommodations was a not-uncommon occurrence, and black travelers made a point to travel with the necessary essentials. This was one factor in their preference for large cars.

The many challenges for African Americans in traveling for business or pleasure led to several publications to guide them, the longest-lived one being The Green Book. It listed all of the boarding houses, hotels, motels, restaurants, resorts, doctors, dentists and other resources available to African American travelers. As the cover said: – you may need it.

The hotels that typically served “colored tourists” in the ’40s and ’50s were older hotels that had seen their best days serving whites. But it beat the alternative of sleeping in the car on the side of the road.

By the ’60s, there were an increasing number of better hotels, motels and resorts that catered to the rapidly growing black consumer market. One of the most famous was the Hampton House in Miami, FL.

It became a favorite for the black elite, where one could see Malcom X taking a photo of Muhammad Ali at the bar on his birthday.

Other black-owned motels, like the Lorraine in Memphis, TN, the site of MLK’s assassination, were often targets in their own right by white vigilantes, as their owners made them available to be used as organization centers for the civil rights movement.

While the federally-regulated airlines were more accommodating to black travelers than trains or buses, there was still the problem of ground transportation, as white taxi drivers typically refused to pick up blacks, and black taxi companies were either barred from airports, or couldn’t make enough money there due to the scarcities of black fares. That meant that black fliers invariably rented cars if they weren’t picked up by family or friends.

The many difficulties and dangers to black motorists had a very real influence on their choice of cars. They most of all valued reliability, as breakdowns were problematic at best and deadly at worst. And comfortable, in case of unexpected overnight stays in it. Not surprisingly, Buick was a favorite brand, especially in the 40s and 50s, as for these three hunters above.

Buick was by far the most universally recognized and respected brand in America, going back to its earliest days. It was the backbone of GM’s strength, and exuded quality, reliability, performance and a consistently strong image of respectability. Here Joe Louis is posing with his new ’35 Buick.

Surveys of black communities in Baltimore and Philadelphia in the late ’40s showed Buick in the #1 spot. Over time, as more and more African Americans could afford to buy cars, the makeup of car brands tended to increasingly reflect that of Americans at large, although there continued to be a greater preference for larger cars. They preferred Big Three brands and tended to avoid the independent brands like Hudson, Rambler and Studebaker. Due to a long history of being robbed, cheated and exploited, African Americans were more brand conscious and brand loyal than average.

The Cadillac brand is typically correlated highly with African Americans. Many celebrities like Chuck Berry (above) that drove  and exulted them in his lyrics reinforced that. It’s a complicated relationship, because on the one hand, successful blacks naturally sought the social prestige that the brand conferred. Because they were typically unable to spend money on many of the trappings of white middle class life (suburban home, vacations, country clubs, etc..) they often chose to spend a greater portion of their disposable income on more expensive cars.

Whites often found this a source of irritation and a challenge to the social order, especially so the poorer ones, who often drove inferior older cars. Purposefully damaging the nicer cars that blacks drove was not uncommon, as well as cultivating stereotypes and social tensions that still live on. As the comedian Dick Gregory said: “I sometimes think the only one who doesn’t resent us owning a Cadillac is GM”.

Yet statistics showed that Cadillacs weren’t nearly as common as made out to be; only 1% in one such study. Their visibility was invariably much higher than the actual numbers, especially when driven by an African American.

Automobiles played a significant role in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and early ’60s. Many of the early protests and boycotts were aimed at transit companies, with their demand that blacks sit at the rear of the bus. Bus drivers readily resorted to physical means to enforce that, and in some cases, they just weren’t picked up at all.

By pooling volunteer drivers and their cars, or renting fleets of station wagons, blacks were able to successfully boycott the buses that they needed to get to their jobs. The bus boycotts were some of the most successful early civil rights initiatives.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was a watershed moment. It wasn’t easy getting there; a filibuster by southern and border states held it up for 75 days. And there were holdouts; cities and companies that blatantly defied the law or found ways to undermine it.

The act had a significant affect on travel, as all accommodations were now accessible. That created some collateral damage, as the growing number of black-owned hospitality businesses now suffered massive drops in patronage as African Americans chose to enjoy what had so long been forbidden fruit. And of course travel guides like the Green Book became irrelevant, and ceased publication within a few years.

Although many of the challenges to driving while black disappeared or greatly diminished after the Civil Rights Act, one grievous risk never has: interactions with the police. It’s hardly necessary to review the long history of so many deaths, beatings, humiliations or other abuse at the hands of law enforcement. The statistics are overwhelming; the outrage has incited protests and riots for many decades. It’s an old and persistent problem that ironically seems to have gotten worse in recent years despite the massive drop in actual crime rates in recent decades.

I’m going to indulge in a bit editorializing: The current wave of massive protests to this pernicious problem may finally result in reforms and more drastic measures to reign in police brutality. I’m not anti-police in principle, and I’ve had a number of very positive interactions with the Eugene Police Department due to my younger son’s issues with substance abuse. Some of those situations were scary and might have had a different outcome if he had not been white. But our department has had relatively enlightened leadership and training, although there have been two shootings, in both cases the victims had mental health issues.

I have been uncomfortable with the growing militarization of the police, its equipment and tactics and its resistance to be above controls from government. There seems to be a constant pressure from police departments to increase budgets and staffing  during a time when our city and state have been under severe budget challenges. Yet crime statistics invariably show massive reductions in violent and property crimes from decades past. Unless it’s the rare traffic stop by a motorcycle patrol, I invariably see three or four police cars arrive within minutes for an issue, often very minor. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of staff from my vantage point.

I bring this up not just to join a chorus or rant, but because in Eugene we actually have an extremely successful alternative service, Cahoots. Started almost 30 years ago by a local nonprofit, it is a first responder alternative to the police in non-violent cases. Its staff are all trained in mental health and substance abuse issues, and focus on de-escalating situations and finding alternative outcomes outside of the criminal justice system. That might be detox, counseling, rehab, or just defusing a crisis rather than escalating it, as so often happens when the police arrive. They’ve helped my son several times, and it’s always felt more appropriate than having police come.

I was pleasantly surprised to read this morning in the NYT that Cahoots is being considered by Minneapolis in their early deliberations in defunding or restructuring their police department:

One model that members of the Minneapolis City Council cite is Cahoots, a nonprofit mobile crisis intervention program that has handled mental health (ED: and substance abuse) calls in Eugene, Ore., since 1989. Cahoots employees responded to more than 24,000 calls for service last year — about 20 percent of the area’s 911 calls — on a budget of about $2 million, probably far less than what it would cost the Police Department to do the work, said Tim Black, the program’s operations coordinator.

“There’s a strong argument to be made from a fiscally conservative perspective,” Mr. Black said. “Public safety institutions generally have these massive budgets and there’s questions about what they are doing.”

In the call to 911 by the store employee, George Floyd was said to be: “sitting on his car cause he is awfully drunk and he’s not in control of himself.” That alone should have been the cue to provide appropriate response for what was a non-violent petty crime. Floyd’s toxicology results showed fentanyl in his system.

The experience of the automobile is much more diverse than commonly depicted in rosy terms on the pages of this site. We revel in nostalgia of our former cars and road trip memories, and yes, even the breakdowns and other misfortunes, which invariably turned out well enough. But we have little or no idea of how such experiences (and others) might likely have been experienced by African American motorists. It’s an interesting thought experiment, to imagine what it must actually have felt like, to be a motorist in a land where humiliation, intimidation and fear were almost omnipresent. And still is, all too often, in regards to the police. Thanks to this excellent book, it’s given me a glimpse, albeit not a very rosy one.


All images found on the web.