Religion & Liberty Online

Freedom Drove a Car: How Cars Helped Fight Racial Segregation

If you want to improve the material conditions of the poor and working classes, what is the one economic metric you should consider most important?

carpooling-Life MagFor progressives the answer is income inequality, since a wide disparity between the incomes of the rich and poor is considered by them to be an obvious sign of injustice and a justification for using the force of the government to redistribute wealth. But for conservatives, the answer is upward economic mobility, the ability of an individual or family to improve their economic status. One of the benefits of the free market is that it harnesses liberty, diligence, and hard work in order to advance economic mobility.

The economic realm, though, exists in the physical realm, which is why economic mobility often requires effective means of physical mobility, that is, reliable transportation. While progressives tend to favor government-controlled public transit (such as busses and subways), conservatives tend to prefer individual transportation, especially access to cars. The reason is that history has shown, as Sasha Volokh says, that freedom drives a car:

Driving is a liberating technology, and we ought to recognize this, especially as we approach Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Let’s think back to 1955, when African Americans stayed off segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala. During the year-long boycott, 325 private cars, some owned by African Americans, some by whites, some by churches, picked up people at 42 sites around the town.

Police harassed the drivers — Martin Luther King Jr. was stopped for speeding (30 in a 25-mph zone) about 30 times — but oppressing people in private cars is harder than oppressing them in public buses.

The boycott was successful, in part because of King’s fiery rhetoric, but also because of car ownership. [UPDATE: Reader Keith Waters says the segregated arrangements weren’t ultimately ended by the boycott but by court decision.]

How would the problem of bus segregation have been resolved in the idyllic world of public transport? Obviously, the private car solution would be out.

Couldn’t blacks have set up a competing, unsegregated bus company, unfettered by oppressive regulation?

Well, they tried in Montgomery, but that required a permit. And relying on the government that oppresses you to help you become self-reliant is an iffy proposition.

Said Mayor Gayle, as he turned down their application in 1956: “If the Negroes want to ride a public vehicle, they can ride the city buses. There is an abundance of public transportation in Montgomery for those who want to use it. If there is a group of people who don’t want to use this public transportation, that’s their fault.”

Through automobility, blacks were sharing in a liberation women had already started to experience earlier in the century.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).