“A Look at Civil Rights in Motion“

In “Traveling Black,” Mia Bay’s superb history of mobility and resistance, the question of literal movement becomes a way to understand the civil rights movement writ large. “Most studies of segregation are centered largely on the South, and are more grounded in the history of particular communities than in the experiences of Black people in motion,” Bay writes. “Once one of the most resented forms of segregation, travel segregation is now one of the most forgotten….”

Uncertainty and confusion turned out to be “defining difficulties” for travelers, as generations of Black Americans tried to navigate a patchwork of segregationist laws and customs that varied wildly, not just from state to state but often at the discretion of a particular ticket collector or railway conductor. Black motorists couldn’t be sure if they would find a safe place to stop, an ambiguity that turned out to be more pronounced in the North, where a lack of segregation signs meant that whatever “rules” existed were unspoken and unclear. As one article put it, “You could never know where insult and embarrassment are waiting for you….”

Bay describes companies going out of their way to cater to the hair-trigger sensitivities of some white passengers….

Sometimes discrimination was strategized in secret, behind the scenes. Employees for American Airlines were supposed to affix a special code to reservations for Black fliers, making it easier to segregate passengers on flights and give preference to white passengers on waiting lists….

“Traveling Black” ends with an epilogue on the contemporary reality of underfunded public transit, racial profiling and fatal traffic stops. In 2017, the N.A.A.C.P. took what Bay calls “the unprecedented step” of issuing a travel advisory urging Black motorists to exercise “extreme caution” when driving in the state of Missouri.

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