In the summer of 2017, the NAACP issued a travel advisory for the state of Missouri.
Modeled after the international advisories issued by the U.S. State Department, the NAACP statement cautioned travelers of color about the “looming danger” of discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of Missouri law enforcement, businesses and citizens.
The civil rights organization’s action had been partly prompted by the state legislature’s passage of what the NAACP called a “Jim Crow bill,” which increased the burden of proof on those bringing lawsuits alleging racial or other forms of discrimination.
But they were also startled by a 2017 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office showing that black drivers were stopped by police at a rate 85 percent higher than their white counterparts. The report also found that they were more likely to be searched and arrested.
When I first read about this news, I thought of the motoring guidebooks published for African-American travelers from the 1930s to the 1960s – a story I explore in my book “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.”
Although they ceased publication some 50 years ago, the guidebooks are worth reflecting on in light of the fact that for drivers of color, the road remains anything but open.
THE HALF-OPEN ROAD
In American popular culture, movies (1983’s “National Lampoon’s “Vacation”), literature (“On the Road”), music (the 1946 hit “Route 66”) and advertising have long celebrated the open road. It’s a symbol of freedom, a rite of passage, an economic conduit – all made possible by the car and the Interstate Highway System.
Yet this freedom – like other freedoms – has never been equally distributed.
While white drivers spoke, wrote and sang about the sense of excitement and escape they felt on automobile journeys through unfamiliar territories, African-Americans were far more likely to dread such a journey.
Especially in the South, whites’ responses to black drivers could range from contemptuous to deadly. For example, one African-American writer recalled in 1983 how, decades earlier, a South Carolina policemen had fined and threatened to jail her cousin for no reason other than the fact that she had been driving an expensive car. In 1948, a mob in Lyons, Georgia, attacked an African-American motorist named Robert Mallard and murdered him in front of his wife and child. That same year, a North Carolina gas station owner shot Otis Newsom after he had asked for service on his car.
Such incidents weren’t confined to the South. Most of the thousands of “sundown towns” – municipalities that barred people of color after dark – were north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Of course, not all white people, police and business owners behaved cruelly toward travelers of color. But a black individual or family traveling the country by car would have had no way of knowing which towns and businesses were amenable to black patrons and visitors, and which posed a grave threat. The only certainties for African-Americans on the road were anxiety and vulnerability.
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SOURCE: Urban Faith, Cotten Seiler, Dickinson College