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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Driving while black in America

February 04, 2019 - 12:21 PM



“Driving While Black” isn’t a real crime anywhere in America. But for an untold number of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era the risk of punishment was real…and it ranged from harassment to death. Sadly, the risk today while less…hasn’t disappeared.

The term Jim Crow comes from a white song-and-dance man, Thomas D. Rice, who performed in black-face and satirized president Andrew Jackson’s populist policies of the 1830s. Jim Crow soon became a pejorative for Negro…and from the 1870s on it was a way of saying…if we can’t have slavery our state and local laws can at least perpetuate racial segregation.

It’s difficult for most of my Canadian friends to understand just how ingrained injustice was…and in too many cases…is in America. I don’t know why attitudes about equality seem different in America and Canada…but my perception is that today - generally - they are. And to be clear, different means things are better in Canada.

Ironically, there was slavery in Canada for a couple hundred years and even many early members of parliament owned slaves until they were all freed in 1834. It is, in fact, persistent myth that slaves here were treated better than in America…actually attitudes, conditions and treatment were comparable.

But, back to the challenges of driving while black in America. The South wasn’t the only place where black people risked life and limb while getting from point A to point B. There are thousands of documented cases across America of black people driving cars and being tormented by white people…from New Jersey to California and from Texas to Wisconsin.

By the 1930s there was an emerging well-to-do class of black doctors, lawyers, business owners, among others, who could afford automobiles. Wealthier black people who were otherwise relegated to the backs of buses or separate mostly filthy rail cars eschewed public transportation. But, if car ownership wasn’t a limiting economic barrier for some black people…the freedom to drive a car  anywhere you wanted was.

It was inevitable that some help would come…and it did in the late-1930s in the form of a travel guide compiled by Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker from Harlem. Known simply as the Green Book, it let black motorists know where they could travel safely - and by omission - where trouble lurked. It named safe routes and specific restaurants, overnight accommodations and businesses that welcomed black as well as green dollars.

If you were black and intended to travel by car in the U.S. - and especially the South - you owned a copy of the Green Book. A black friend and civil rights activist I met in the U.S. Air Force, Fred Archer, once told me, “If you were black, you didn’t spit in the wind or travel in the Old South without a Green Book…it could save your life.”

Before and even after the Green Book, black people suffered and were killed…guilty of simply being on the road or in the minds of die-hard Southerners...”being uppity.” On Friday, Nov. 6, 1931, Juliette Derricotte, a black woman and dean of students at Fisk University in Nashville, was traveling between Chattanooga and Atlanta with three black students when they were run off the road near Dalton, GA by a carload of white men.

Derricotte and Nina Mae Johnson, a black senior at Fisk, died from injuries when hospital officials in Dalton refused treatment to her… a “colored” woman. Two other black students - Marian Price and Edward Davie - were treated for minor injuries by a “colored” physician in Dalton and survived.

It was not unusual for well-to-do blacks driving nice cars in the South to be terrorized by whites who - driving rattletraps - would bump or force them into ditches. You should know - or remember - that from the late-19th century through the time I was a teenager in the early 1960s, there were thousands of “Sundown Towns” across America. By actual law - and sometimes unwritten but no less real - black people were not to be seen on city streets after sundown.

When I was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in the early 1970s, a black friend and fellow airman and I would often drive into Tampa to go to a movie, restaurant or bar. We would take turns driving…and almost every time he drove his car…we were stopped by police. There were no violations. We would usually be separated…and often I was asked, “What are you doing with the nigger?”

The first time that happened I pushed back with a somewhat wise ass, “We’re Air Force blue.” My friend scolded me as he drove away from the police car, “Don’t ever do that again…are you trying to get us both killed?”

Is justice and equal treatment in America better today? Yes, but the truth is…neither justice nor equality is colour blind. Consider that even law enforcement - much less the general public - has a way to go.

Several studies over the past few decades have found that police officers target African-Americans for traffic stops more often and more likely search an African-American’s vehicle. For example, in New Jersey in 1996, 42 percent of traffic stops were black drivers, even though only 15 percent were violators.

In St. Paul, MN, officers made 41,000 traffic stops in 2007…26 percent were African-American even though black people comprise only 11 percent of the population. More recently, in Michigan, probable cause searches were made on 23 percent of black drivers stopped, even though the black population of Michigan is less than 14 percent.

Maryland police statistics in 2009 showed that 70 percent of the drivers stopped along Interstate 95 running through the state were black…yet black people represented only about 20 percent of drivers.

Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of law enforcement officers and other Americans don’t treat black people this way. There are many good Americans. And there’s hope. Last week 63 percent of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track” today, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

We need to accept that - whether 1930 or 2019 - driving while black is more dangerous than driving while white. That’s more than a shame.

The struggle for American ideals…concepts like truth, justice, equality, humanity… has always been a formidable challenge. And until anyone can drive anywhere without risk of harm from others…Americans can’t win that noble struggle.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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