Cars and Civil Rights

Driving into History

1996 was the Centennial of the Car; it should have been called the Censorial of the Car. From magazine cover stories to interminable PBS series, critics whined about our "addiction" to this allegedly environment-ravishing, air-polluting, community-destroying machine. In contrast, the industry-funded activities were pretty superficial, on the level, say, of a Cuisinart anniversary celebration.

The Centennial festivities were largely over by the fall. This was unfortunate, because December 1996, marked the anniversary of an event that epitomizes the real meaning of the private automobile — the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. It began on Dec. 5, 1955, triggered by the arrest several day earlier of Rosa Parks, a 41-year old black seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated city bus. It ended over a year later, on Dec. 20, 1956, when the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing such segregation took effect. In the year in between, over fifteen thousand blacks who had previously commuted on the city’s buses found other ways to get to work.

One of those ways was the car. In fact, the 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, "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 car pools soon found themselves facing new political threats. Police engaged in crackdowns on newly-discovered traffic "violations," and the police ranks themselves were augmented with laid-off drivers from idled city buses. But the private car succeeded in cracking the city government’s monopoly stranglehold on transportation.

This story involves more than history — it says something about the very nature of automobility. We know that the car is a technological convenience, but we tend to forget that it can also be something far more important.

In his 1995 CEI monograph, Autonomy and Automobility, philosopher Loren Lomasky argued that the car is a liberating and ennobling technology, comparable in its effect on human potential to the printing press and the microchip. In his view, one reason why the car is despised by the intelligentsia is because nothing else so easily enables individuals to flout the vision of some central planner.

In today’s world, that central planning vision is usually colored "green." It is, for example, a vision of densely populated cities whose residents have eschewed suburban sprawl, embraced mass transit and pledged to recycle ’til death do them part. And the car is a mote in the eye of this vision, enticing some lout into driving solo at the height of rush hour.

But as the Montgomery boycott illustrates, there are other central planning visions as well, such as the Jim Crow vision held by that city’s government not so long ago. The private car created a means of escape.

The auto industry may produce cars, but it seems to have forgotten just what the car itself produces. The story of the Montgomery bus boycott bears retelling these days, when the car is attacked in the name of causes ranging from air quality to zoological diversity, when our Vice President calls the car a "mortal threat . . . more deadly than that of any military enemy." In times likes this, taking an unnecessary, un-carpooled drive for the sheer hell of it may be one of the more pleasurable acts of civil disobedience open to us. The story of the bus boycott should remind us that there is history not only under our wheels, but on our side as well.

Sam Kazman is CEI’s general counsel. Another version of this essay appeared in the Dec. 15, 1996 Detroit News.