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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

South of Freedom

Carl T. Rowan was born in 1925 and raised in McMinnville, Tennessee. After serving as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he graduated from Oberlin College (1947) and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota (1948). He joined the staff of the Minneapolis Tribune , first as a copywriter, then as a staff writer. Carl Rowan was an African-American.

Many years later, President Kennedy would appoint Rowan to the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, a delegate to the United Nations, and in 1963, U.S. Ambassador to Finland. President Johnson brought Rowan back to serve as director of the United States Information Agency. After leaving the Administration, Rowan wrote a syndicated column for the Chicago Sun-Times , appeared on television talk and panel shows, earned a spot on President Nixon's "enemies list," and won a Pulitzer Prize for his commentaries.

But that was in the future. In 1951, the young journalist sold his editor on a story idea. Rowan would return to the South and report on what turned out to be a 6,000-mile journey. His articles were of sufficient interest in the Minneapolis Tribune that he expanded them into a book called South of Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).

The book is not a sermon or an attempt to offer solutions. Rather, as Rowan put it in the preface, "This book is about the Americans-white and black-who live under the shadow of the problem." He continued:

It is about their struggles-on the one hand to maintain the old order of segregation and racial caste, and on the other hand to establish a "New South." I have tried to tell of the "little things" that circumscribe the lives of black folk. I also have told of our gains. This is a balance-sheet of American race relations: it tells how far we have come and where we still must go. [South , p. vii]

Rowan would encounter Jim Crow racism in many aspects of southern life, but nowhere more than in transportation. Because the 1950s would be a decade of transformation for the Civil Rights Movement, Rowan's observations of the South allow a glimpse of what life was like at the start of that pivotal period.

He flew home to Tennessee, encountering Jim Crow at his first stop at the Louisville airport. He approached a candy stand and stood by as the attendant served white customers and ignored him. He walked away. Having grown up in the South, he wrote, "I knew that I would be served only after all whites had been waited on." Soon, in Nashville, he saw seats designated "For Colored Passengers Only" and separate rest rooms (one marked "White Ladies" and the other "Colored Women")

Before leaving the North, Rowan had reserved a car at the airport. The attendant at the Hertz rental station treated Rowan courteously, one of the few times he would receive such treatment when attendants discovered that Rowan was an African-American.

The Jim Crow signs and the courteous treatment by the Hertz attendant, right at the start of the journey, illustrated "what it is like to be a Negro":

It is a life of doubt, of uncertainty as to what the reception will be, even from one building to another. It is this doubt that permeates Negro life in the North as well as the South. In the North, the doubt is created by whites who circumvent democratic laws by subterfuge, in the South, the doubt springs from the fact that, because few statutes exist that are favorable to the Negro, the white man's mood and spoken word become law.

Having served his country during the war, earned a master's degree, and secured a job that kept him in the north, Rowan realized he would have to adjust his approach as he drove to McMinnville on U.S. 70:

I realized that I had come face to face with doubt. Doubt as to which filling-station would allow me to buy gasoline and also to use the toilet. Doubt as to which restaurant would sell me food, even to take out. Doubt as to which cities forbid Negroes to ride in white cabs, and whites to ride in Negro cabs . . . . I knew that on highways, where all-white patrols enforce the law, I must always be prepared to smile meekly and question nothing should patrolmen stop me. [South , p. 15-17]

After a stay in his hometown, Rowan would travel through the south by bus and train. His first trip out of McMinnville on a Tennessee Coach Lines bus got off to a promising start. He pushed his suitcase ahead of him towards the back of the bus where he was required to sit. As the bus rolled along in the night, he reached for his coat in the overhead rack:

As I began to fumble in the semidarkness, the driver flicked on a light for me. I got my coat and lifted my hand toward him as a gesture of thanks. I had ridden scores of buses in the South, many times on that same route, and drivers showing such courtesy to a Negro passenger were rare. It was the first time I had ever observed such an act. [South , p. 51]

The bus took him to Knoxville where he went to the airport for a flight to Washington, DC:

. . . Washington is the magic boundary where the mores of train and bus passengers shift suddenly and decree that Negros and whites who have ridden side by side must do so no farther south; or where northbound passengers who have ridden under conditions of untouchability feel free to change to a closeness next to intimacy. [South , p. 59]

Before leaving Knoxville, Rowan had called the Plaza hotel in Washington to make a reservation. Upon arriving at National Airport, he called to confirm the reservation. However, when he reached the Plaza he would have an experience that he would encounter many times in coming weeks, namely that places willing to accommodate Carl T. Rowan did so only if they thought he was white. No, the woman at the desk told him, the hotel had no reservation for a Mr. Rowan. No, her supervisor added, they didn't have a free room since "we've been filled for quite a while-two weeks."

As he walked out of the hotel, the bellhop told him, "I thought you must be crazy when you stopped here." Before he stepped into a taxi, he received a message from the front desk that he should try the Whitelaw hotel. It was a Negro hotel and he booked a room that was similar to many such rooms he would see:

Once in the Deep South, I would have to stay at dirty, bedbug-ridden, brawling houses, most of them owned by whites and run by Negroes, all gleefully profiting from segregation, or I would have to rely on the hospitality of Negro citizens. [South , p. 61-62]

As he explored segregation in the Nation's capital, he looked into its origins:

During most of the twentieth century, the government has had a "closed door policy" toward the Negro worker, whereas during the last half of the nineteenth century Negroes served as Register of the Treasury, Auditor of the Navy, consul, Collector of Customs, and in many other important posts at home and abroad.

The change began, Rowan explained, under President William Howard Taft (1907-1912), who restricted white census workers to canvassing white citizens and African-American workers to canvassing black citizens. As noted earlier, segregation became firm after President Wilson took office in March 1913 and had to work with southern Congressmen who were determined to extend white supremacy. Having grown up in Virginia, the new President was receptive:

Senators Hoke Smith (Georgia), Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman (South Carolina), and James Vardaman (Mississippi) formed an organization known as the Democratic Fair Play Association, the purpose of which was to "put the Negro in his place." This group made President Wilson an honorary member and then set about its mission. Negro and white employees of the Bureau of Engraving were set apart at lunchtime. In 1914 the Civil Service Commission began asking each job applicant to submit a photograph. This stopped Negroes from getting top jobs. With two exceptions, every Negro in the auditor's office was demoted.

The South had seized control of the District Committees of the House and Senate, and Washington became the citadel of Jim Crow. [South , p. 79-80]

Ready to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, Rowan called and made a Pullman reservation on the Atlantic Coast Line's Palmetto Limited. He was optimistic because, he said, "Many a Negro has secured Pullman space or reserved seats on a train by telephoning, since race is not so discernible over the phone." At Union Station, he went to pick up his ticket:

The seller made the usual phone call to confirm my space, but seemed to do all his talking about a pile of coal in somebody's basement. He expressed surprise that the Army already had moved it, and then gave me my tickets with no apparent reluctance.

As the train rolled along, he discovered that his ticket was not for the berth he had reserved by telephone. Although the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation could not be practiced on interstate trains, the porter explained what had happened:

"Oh, but they had their ways of segregating. Ticket-sellers had race codes, and they do now in lotsa cities. They'll talk to the reservations office about the 'woodpile,' 'in the coal bin,' and all that stuff. It all means: 'This traveler is a Negro; put another one with him if you can.'"

He would be able to sleep in a Pullman berth, but only with an African-American above him. [South , p. 85]

When Rowan was ready to leave Charleston, he called to reserve a seat on the East Coast Champion. He was told he would have to come in to purchase a ticket. This was "my first real idea of Charleston's regard for federal law." African-Americans had been calling to reserve seats and telling the sellers that they would send a Negro boy to pick up the tickets. Having gotten wise to this trick, the sellers required travelers to pick up their tickets in person "unless they could establish their racial heritage rather clearly by phone."

As he suspected, the ticket he received at the station was for car number one right behind the engine. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, he saw signs directing white and African-American passengers to different boarding stations. He was in the Jim Crow car.

The following day, he watched the scene passing by as the train rolled south:

The tracks would move closer to the sea, where riders could watch a million little whitecaps polka-dot the ocean's blue.

But part of the panorama-the part controlled more by man than by nature-would remain constant. Unchangeable would be the picture of despair that extends for hundreds of miles down the Atlantic coast, where the shabbiest kind of houses stand alongside the railroad tracks. Their foundations sinking into swampy lowlands, these dilapidated bungalows turn a pitiful face to America riding by. I knew that many, many Americans had traveled that same road without thinking or caring about how many fellow Americans live in those one- and two-room tarpaper shacks. I knew that it didn't have to be that road. Every train-rider, every automobile tourist had seen it somewhere, for it is traditional for railroad tracks and highways to cut through the heart of the Negro's rundown domain. [South , p. 107]

After a stay in Miami, Rowan decided to visit family members in Milledgeville, Georgia. He would take the New Royal Palm, a streamliner, to Macon, then bus to his destination. Once again, he reserved a ticket on the train, but when he approached the ticket office in the white waiting room, the seller closed the window in his face and pointed toward the waiting room designated "colored." Only through persistence did the seller agree to give him the reserved ticket for a seat in car 4. [South , p. 121-122]

Arriving in Macon, he felt confident over his small victory. When he could not find a newspaper in the waiting room for African-Americans, he walked into the white waiting room to make his purchase. While he was deciding which paper to buy, he heard the booming voice of the station agent: "Boy! This ain't the colored waiting-room." The agent directed the woman behind the newsstand counter not to take Rowan's money. She told him, "No, no, no, you got no business in here." When he insisted on his rights, the station agent told him he had to go back to his waiting room and ask the redcap to purchase the paper.

The humiliations of the past 3 weeks boiled over. "I was angry, damned angry." After making his views clear, he returned to the other waiting room. The agent ordered an African-American redcap to follow him. "See where he goes," the agent said as he dialed a telephone. Fearful that the agent was calling the police, Rowan hired a taxi to take him to Milledgeville. [South , p. 124-126]

When Rowan was ready to travel to Atlanta, he was informed that the morning bus route went through Macon. He declined to revisit that city. He would take the afternoon bus.

Because his trip was intrastate, the bus line was not subject to the Supreme Court ruling on interstate transportation. At the station, he entered through the side door into the Negro waiting room and purchased a ticket at the window for Negroes. He had arrived early to be sure to get a seat on the bus, but as he approached the door, another African-American passenger told him, "Colored can't board until all the whites are on." After all the white passengers had boarded, Rowan was thankful that he found an empty Jim Crow seat. [South , p. 142-143]

As in many cities, and not just those in the South, African-American life in Atlanta was centered on a street, in this case Auburn Avenue:

Almost everything that met the eye was Negro-of, for, or about Negroes. These were sights I might have seen in many cities. I could have been on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue, Nashville's Fourth Avenue, Memphis' Beale Street, Minneapolis's Olson Highway, or St. Paul's lower Rondo Street. [South , p. 151]

This was where the poor African-Americans lived, dependent on the businesses along Auburn Avenue that would serve them. To see the other side of African-American life, Rowan took a taxi to the Hunter Road area "where fine homes and fine cars lined the streets." This was where the better off African-Americans lived. Visiting a friend of a friend in one of those homes, he found the owner confident of progress. "The old South ain't what she used to be," he said. While prosperous African-Americans may have felt that way, Rowan found their day-to-day life was ruled by Jim Crow:

Negroes ride in cabs driven by Negroes; they sit in Jim Crow seats in public vehicles; they sit in bleachers to watch a baseball game; and in many buildings they are expected to take the freight elevator up, although they may descend on the first elevator to come along. [South , p, 154-155]

His next stop was Birmingham, Alabama, "the capital of Jim Crowism in America." He explained:

Birmingham is a city of gross tensions, a city where the color line has been drawn in every conceivable place; Eugene "Bull" Connor, white-supremacist police commissioner, sees that no man, white or black, crosses the line. [South , p. 158]

Arriving in the city on the Southern Railroad in the Jim Crow car (despite his arguments with rail officials in Atlanta), he searched for 2 days to find "just one aspect" of life that was not dominated by segregation. "I failed," he concluded. "I found only countless examples of the inconsistency, the irony, the pathos, and accompanying evil that is segregation."

It began at the station, where a policeman made sure that white passengers went through the steel gate while African-Americans were directed through the gate leading to their waiting room. Outside, he found the segregated location for taxis driven by African-Americans that an African-American could use. [South , p. 158-159]

As he wandered the city during his 2-day stay, he rode a bus downtown:

I found that both races enter through the front door, as is customary in most cities of the South. I did not read fast enough, however, and had to be told by a gruff motorman that "Nigras step up on the left side, white people on the right side" of the steps. Sure enough, painted side-by-side on the single set of steps were the words COLORED and WHITE. There was only one money box; the fares were the same for both races.

I sat behind a wooden bar near the rear of the bus. The bar is the official "segregator," and a sign on it warned both whites and Negros [sic] not to move it. Although it was not the case on my bus, I saw others on which Negroes stood packed in behind the segregator although there were many empty seats in front of the bar. This can work the other way, of course, but drivers usually see that the bar is where no whites will be inconvenienced.

Unfamiliar with Birmingham customs, Rowan erred leaving the bus:

Again I erred by starting out the front door-down the colored side of the steps. The motorman closed the door in my face and ordered me to go to the back door. Only whites could exit at the front. [South , 161]

Rowan described Birmingham as "the human sinkhole of race relations" partly because of the lack of effective political power. He attributed the lack of power to "deceptive skullduggery on the part of election officials" and "apathy on the part of Negroes." Less than 5,000 of the 108,000 African-Americans in Jefferson County had registered to vote:

One reason, of course, is the poll tax of $1.50 yearly. It is cumulative up to $36, and must be paid in a lump sum. It prevents many Negroes as well as whites from voting. (Alabama is one of the five Southern states with a poll tax in effect. Tennessee recently repealed its law.)

Even more effective in preventing a buildup of Negro political strength is the registration system, under which registrars defy the law and continue to use what is, in effect, the Boswell Amendment, already declared unconstitutional. Under this amendment the registrar could ask an applicant to "interpret the Constitution." If the applicant failed to answer "satisfactorily" he was declared ineligible to vote. The amendment was applied almost exclusively to Negroes, who represent a third of the Alabama population. [South , p. 169]

(After the Supreme Court outlawed white primaries in 1944, the Alabama State legislature adopted the Boswell Amendment, named for State Senator E. C. "Bud" Boswell, in 1945. As ratified by voters in 1946, the amendment required voters to "understand and explain" any section of the Constitution. As a result of litigation initiated by the NAACP and other organizations, the U.S. District Court ruled the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional in 1949 because it violated the 15th Amendment to the Constitution ( Davis et. al. v. Schnell et. al.).)

The proprietor of the Rush Hotel, one of the few hotels in the city that accepted African-Americans, told Rowan that, "just wait, the President of the United States will take an unsegregated step here one day. Then Americans will see that it can happen to anybody."After a couple days in the city, Rowan had to disagree:

I feared that long before Presidents start making unsegregated moves in segregated places, some of Birmingham's lost thousands will act boldly. The tiniest stroke against an unmovable city regime will be the spark to send the tensions exploding. [South , p. 167]

Rowan visited New Orleans, then called the Missouri Pacific Railroad to reserve a Pullman berth for a trip to Monroe in northeastern Louisiana. He then went to the station to pick up his ticket. At first, he used the standard trick of claiming he was the "boy" sent to pick up Mr. Rowan's ticket, but he realized that since he was paying with traveler's checks made out in his name, the seller would be suspicious.

"Is it for you?" the seller asked.

"Does it make any difference?" I asked.

"Well, if you're colored I can't sell you a Pullman ticket to Monroe-that ain't across no state line. Are you colored?"

Frustrated after weeks in the South, Rowan said, "You see what color I am. Why don't you ask what you want to ask: am I American? Well, I am!"

Rowan decided to get around the restriction by asking for a ticket to an interstate train that went to Little Rock via Monroe. When the seller tried to get out of providing the ticket by explaining that the train would reach Monroe at 3 a.m., Rowan bluffed. "Somebody's going to sell me a Pullman ticket to Monroe or the whole United States government will know about it. I've ridden Pullman intrastate in the South before." Suspecting that Rowan might be a government man, the seller finally issued the ticket for lower berth 11, car 1162. When Rowan protested that the car had only 10 sections, the agent explained that they had sold him a ticket for a compartment rather than a berth at the price of a berth. [South , p. 207-209]

The trip went well at first but was delayed first by a collision up ahead and then by derailment. Because of the long delay, Rowan decided to switch from the Monroe car to a car bound for Little Rock. The porter was hesitant, explaining that all the compartments were full. When Rowan said he just wanted a seat, the porter explained, "there's mostly white women in that car. They ain't too happy around here about colored men riding where white women are. Fact is, that's the main thing they's against." After talking to the conductor, Rowan received his ticket and continued on without incident. [South , p. 218-219]

When the train finally resumed the trip, Rowan thought about his experience of riding in the same car as white women:

The fact that I did get the seat and nobody screamed to be let off the train seemed to me a tiny indication that the oldest taboo of the Old South also might be weakening under the wear and tear of time and the emergence of reasoning among basically reasonable men. [South , p, 228]

Rowan's journey through the New South ended in Oklahoma City. Sitting in the all-Negro Littlepage Hotel after 4,000 miles of rough handling and uncertainty, "I had decided, all of a sudden, that I had seen enough. I was ready to leave the South." He went to the railroad station to get a ticket on the last Missouri-Kansas-Texas line leaving for Kansas City that night. To avoid confrontation, he went to the "colored" waiting room and purchased his ticket at the window for Negro travelers. The train did not have Pullman accommodations; it had only two cars for this trip.

When he saw that the car he was assigned to was dilapidated, he moved to the other car, which was for white travelers. He thought, "I don't know if they segregate on this train, but this is one night Rowan won't be Jim Crowed." The conductor immediately informed him he would have to move back to the first car. Leaving the South, Rowan engaged in the longest confrontation of his trip. When the conductor said "the colored car is up front," Rowan replied, "There isn't any colored car now, either," referring to a recent Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Richmond that the segregation of interstate passengers was illegal in coaches, diners, and Pullman cars.

Rowan was determined to stand firm even if it meant "I might get my brains beaten out." He threatened to sue if not allowed to stay in his comfortable seat. The conductor left and returned with a man who claimed to be a policeman. Rowan explained the Supreme Court decision. "Show me some credentials," the man insisted. Rowan asked to see his credentials. "Boy, I said I'm a policeman." Rowan replied that "I see nothing to indicate that you're a policeman."

Because Rowan had implied that he might be a government agent, the conductor and the other man were reluctant to push too hard. Only then, reluctantly, did they allow him to stay in the car. His trip to Kansas City was uneventful. [South , p. 246-249]

Arriving in Kansas City, he thought:

[Going] North is never quite the same as going South. Not if you are a Negro . . . . The difference is in the mind and spirit and nerves. It is the dissolving of tension. The depressing feeling of living with all the odds against you begins to let up. The fear of physical harm lessens. Militancy becomes less synonymous with foolhardiness. You begin to feel that you can "talk back."

He would still see differences. At a restaurant in Kansas City, the hostess tried to seat him in the area with other African-Americans, but he sat at the counter instead. In St. Louis, trying to catch a taxi to his hotel in a snowstorm, he had to wait 55 minutes before a cab driven by an African-African would stop for him. [South , p. 255-256]

Many African-Americans were following his path of leaving the South. He recalled the Birmingham railroad station he visited to buy a ticket to Montgomery:

[The] room was crowded with Negroes. I was concerned about whether there would be enough seats aboard the train to Montgomery.

"Don't worry about the crowd," the agent said as he handed me my ticket. "They're all going north." [South , p. 257]

Now, he saw the same travelers in St. Louis:

These, I felt, were twentieth-century pilgrims, many of whom would find no Plymouth Rock north of the Mason-Dixon line. But their departure made them happy in the sense that a daydream is happy . . . . So this migration, which reached an almost staggering rate during World War II, is supposed to be the cure-all. The white South forgets, however, that the Negroes who leave are those with a spirit of venture, with "get up and go." Because of this loss in men with the initiative and self-confidence needed to pick up everything about their set lives and stumble into a strange, fast, new environment, the South will suffer in the long run. [South , p. 258]

The trip had been depressing, frustrating, and discouraging, and only among a "courageous few of a passing generation and among wisdom-seeking youth who stand to control a coming generation," had he found "an admission that racism has been the Southland's mental illness, her epidemic." In them, he detected a glimmer of hope "that an increasing number of the people were quietly desirous of a cure." [South , p. 257]

The problem, Rowan knew, was not just in the South. He had experienced "the two-facedness of the North." Where "little men with the towering club of law" ruled the South, he encountered small men in the North "who manifest their hatred and antipathies by guile and trickery." He added:

The North, in resorting to subterfuge, had at least negatively acknowledged my rights, leaving me to contend only with the wily nonconformist. I have a fighting chance. [South , p. 264-265]

The future, he concluded, "is our great hope." Some fear it, but many African-Americans put their faith in it:

We are not yet masters of our fate, but we intend to grope and grapple with the present, and try to put a mold of our making on the future . . . . The wheels of justice are turning, and everywhere that old despot, custom, is on the run.

The Nation, Rowan predicted, was facing its "hour of bedlam." Through "the dust and haze of turmoil," America stumbled in its "common hour of tribulation" toward its "common destiny." [South , p. 269-270]

Updated: 10/21/2013
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