How Cars Saved The Montgomery Bus Boycott

December 5, 1955, was a key date in the struggle to eliminate racial segregation laws in the United States. On that date, the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama, followed the lead of Rosa Parks, after her refusal, four days earlier, to “move to the back of the bus,” by boycotting the city’s segregated buses. Parks’s stance catalyzed a community into action, propelling the civil rights movement that led to the end of Jim Crow.

The end of segregation is one of the greatest triumphs for racial equality. But it was more than that. It is also a triumph of the free market. That’s because the economic incentives of capitalism are fundamentally at odds with racist laws. Money, after all, is colorblind.
In Montgomery, for instance, the bus system was nominally “private,” but subject to city racial exclusion laws. Passenger rail segregation was fought by private rail companies, which found multi-class service costly, as Jonathan Bean, a business historian at Southern Illinois University, has documented. Yet for many transit firms, government-granted monopoly status was too enticing to resist.

The Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted 381 days, demonstrated growing resistance to segregation. It did not end segregated buses in Montgomery right away—that required success in the federal courts—but it kept the issue alive and gave time both for lawsuits to work their way through the courts and civil rights activists to take their message to the American people at large.

For activists in Montgomery, maintaining the boycott posed a challenge: how to secure needed mobility without riding buses? Walking remained an option, but not for the elderly and infirm and people living in remote locations. Taxi services were more expensive, regulated, and subject to police harassment. And buying a car remained outside many people’s budgets. But helping friends get to work or to the store remained legal.
Even in Montgomery, enough African Americans owned private automobiles to ensure that people’s vital transportation needs were met. Neighbors organized carpools and shared phone contacts to address unanticipated needs, such as having to take someone to the hospital. All these complex coordination tasks were achieved over the year-plus boycott, while the costs to the city steadily mounted.

My colleague Sam Kazman has noted the important role of car ownership in the civil rights movement:

“[T]he boycott might well have failed without it. Church-operated station wagons known as ‘rolling churches’ met people at designated pick-up points. Black-owned taxis and private cars were quickly organized into a system of alternate transportation. As Beatrice Siegel wrote in her 1992 history of the boycott, The Year They Walked: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, ‘a downtown parking lot owned by a black man became the central command post for a fleet of cars that operated like shared taxicabs. Within weeks some three hundred vehicles were in the car pool.’"

The city sought to block these efforts, but it failed, and private car ownership had a lot to do with it. As The Washington Post’s Warren Brown noted:

“[T]he boycotters persisted, using their private automobiles to drive around Jim Crow—avoiding both its buses and its downtown businesses in segregated Montgomery."

Capitalism disperses economic power and that dispersal offset to some degree the concentration of political power in racist hands. That democratic, egalitarian virtue is well illustrated by the Montgomery Bus boycott, another contribution of capitalism to a more just society.

As the philosopher Loren Lomasky points out, the car is one of the three most liberating technologies developed by mankind (along with the printing press and the computer). That was fittingly demonstrated in Montgomery 60 years ago.

Originally posted at Forbes.