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Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
P. David Dillard
Looking across the 20th century, this thesis seeks to understand the relationship African Americans developed between automobility and the fight for civil rights, filling a gap left in the historiography of both the automobile and the Civil Rights Movement. Historians of the automobile have almost exclusively focused their lens on white suburbia and the “autotopias” that Americans created, while historians of the Civil Rights Movement ignored the automobile entirely. This thesis hopes to begin to fill that void by explaining how African Americans exploited the technological system of the automobile to create forms of transportation accessible to African American communities, yet separate from segregated public transportation systems. African Americans used the automobile to repeatedly undermine white authority that dominated the spaces of public transportation. African Americans were not absent from the story of the automobile rather the transformative technological system was perhaps more powerful from African Americans than any other group of people. They actively used cars to change the rules that governed legal and social interaction between themselves and whites.
Almost as soon as the automobile was invented, African Americans used the technological system to assert power for themselves and developed transportation options and corporations aimed at giving African American options not governed by White Authority. The first of these options was the exploitation of jitney buses (automobiles outfitted for maximum passenger capacity) to challenge the segregated streetcars that dominated urban transportation in the early 1900s.
African Americans also gained agency and power through the pooling of resources, particularly in the form of a carpool that financially crippled the Montgomery public bus company and forced segregation into a national conversation on the tails of the Brown v. Board decision and became one of the first applications of law that tested the Supreme Court’s stance on segregation.
African American history and the story of the automobile are not mutually exclusive, rather are intricately connected. This connection can be ignored no longer.
Macy, Xavier, "Drive toward freedom: African American: The story of black automobility in the fight for Civil Rights" (2015). Masters Theses. 72.