A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Kidada speaks with historian Blair L.M. Kelley about how segregation grew out of pushback against Black upward mobility, and how Richmond, VA serves as an example of how boycotts can be a powerful tool for collective success to combat issues of justice following the streetcar boycotts in the city at the turn of the 20th century.

They also discuss the role failure plays in laying the groundwork for future successes in social justice movements, encouraging current activists to look to history for examples of how to continue the fight even in the face of defeat.  

Additionally, they look at the current political landscape with a new wave of voter suppression laws.

View Transcript

Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. When one of my favorite historians, Blair Kelley, was a college student, she studied Booker T. Washington’s famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech. In the speech, he told his mostly white audience that African Americans would be content without civil rights; that it was better for them to figure out how to work and make a living. 

Blair Kelley: We were taught that this was a time when everybody decided that Booker T. Washington was right, and that they should accommodate segregation, they should simply build within their communities and, you know, open businesses and develop educational institutions and not worry about their citizenship—not worry about the right to vote, or that the harshness of segregation—that they could really build from within. 

So I found it strange that they would all just then listen to Booker T. Washington give this one speech, and everybody’s like, “Yeah, we’re good. We don’t want to fight for our rights anymore.” 

KEW: Blair was right to be skeptical. And this season, we’ve already heard how Black intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois and activists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett resisted Washington’s gospel of work. 

But Blair was also curious about whether everyday, middle-class, less famous Black people were resisting. So she turned to newspapers from the era…

BK: …And what I found was a nationwide movement of people who contested the segregation of their streetcars, often streetcars that they had integrated themselves during reconstruction through their own protests. And so they were meaningful. They were markers of their mobility, of their ability to get to their jobs across the cities, of their ability to go to church or their fraternal organizations, their clubs.

And importantly, for working class people, they were the means by which they would get across the city to run errands, to deliver laundry, to work gathering groceries for the households in which they were employed. And I began to think this is something different. This is not conservative. This is not inconsequential. This is a real movement, a real struggle that happens to fail.

KEW: Blair eventually turned her research about the streetcar boycotts into her book, “Right to Ride.” Those national boycotts are the focus of our latest narrative episode. So I wanted Blair to tell me more about their significance. She told me how one community’s boycotts were emblematic of the protests as a whole: the ones in Richmond, Virginia, in 1904.

BK: So for me, Richmond is at the heart of the story of the streetcar boycotts. I was struck by Maggie Lena Walker, who we know oftentimes for her advocacy as a club woman and a businesswoman and a banker. She was an advocate for women, the daughter of a washerwoman in Richmond. She grew up traversing the city on behalf of her mother, delivering laundry, picking up laundry when it was dirty. So she got to know the city. She got to know working women. So even as she rose to be the most elite black woman in Richmond at the turn of the century, she had the heart of the working class. 

She understood them. She was empathetic to their cause, and she understood what they would need and that segregation would, would harm them. She knew what a streetcar could mean for a woman who basically was a small businessperson, right, that she needed to get around the city. So it wasn’t just about dignity and elite behavior and being treated like a lady, but it was also about, about the work—about not needing to be assaulted or insulted as you went about your day, as you rode multiple times in one day. So, because she knew the texture of the work itself, she knew what it would mean to be degraded in that space. 

KEW: Is there anything about the Richmond protests in particular that stands out in terms of strategies they deployed? Successes? 

BK: So, I love Richmond also because Maggie Lena Walker’s…I’d like to think of them as like each other’s arch nemesis. Um, there’s this man named John Mitchell, Jr. who’s also a businessperson and also a banker. They went to high school together. They never talk about each other in their writings. They never mentioned each other. So that lets me think there’s a little heat there. And John Mitchell, Jr. wasn’t an advocate for the everyday working class person.

I think he thought that segregation might have been happening because the least of us were not at our best. I think he was blaming the poor and the poorly behaved for the onslaught and the erosion of Black rights. And Maggie Lena Walker was taking the opposite position. She was saying, basically, our success is what is catching their attention, and I really agree with her. Black upward mobility was the problem that segregation was trying to solve. 

So watching those two go head to head allowed you to see the texture of the movement, the differences that existed in the city. You also see success. Brief success in this movement. They bankrupt the streetcar company in the first year of protests. There’s a legacy in Richmond that continues into the next generation about staying off the cars and avoiding segregation.

And so it’s a powerful example of the determination that they had and the determination this generation had matched that of the civil rights movement. They just weren’t successful. They had no allies. They had no outside support that the modern civil rights movement did benefit from, eventually. But they had the same spirit. 

KEW: While the Richmond boycotts were temporarily successful, this wasn’t the case in places like Little Rock, Arkansas or Houston, Texas. There, the boycotts didn’t last very long. Black protesters held out as long as they could, but they couldn’t defeat the deep pockets of big transportation corporations and racist Jim Crow policies. So I asked Blair: if the boycotts were failures, why is the streetcar movement historically significant?

BK: I think it’s significant because we have to study failure. We keep looking for those successes, for those atomized and special moments of when everything comes together and you have Black and white people and everyone’s holding hands and everything works out. But most of the time when people do movement work, they don’t win. Most of the time when people coalesce around an issue of justice, they fail. 

And it doesn’t mean that they’re not right. It means, instead, that failure is one of the things that those who protest must plan for, must accept, must continue to strategize through. And so when we see contemporary movement folks who are feeling down because of a defeat, it’s just a reminder that, you know, there were defeats. There have been defeats in our history, and those things are just as important to chronicle as models for what you can know and what you can’t know, what you can plan for and what you can’t plan for, in the protests of the future. 

KEW: And I think that for that time period and for ours, having an understanding of conditions, right? So in this moment, in the turn to the 20th century, activists are trying to hit a moving target. Right? The system isn’t yet in place. It’s being built in real time around them. And while they’re being disenfranchised, so while they’re losing some of the tools they need to to confront it. 

And so I think that, you know, when we talk about things like a failed movement, we need to understand, like the conditions that are in place that make it very difficult for them to do. And to underscore the importance of resistance anyway because they learn something from that movement. 

BK: Absolutely. And those lessons get passed down. Those lessons get passed down.

KEW: Exactly. 

BK: And you know, I start my book “Right to Ride” with the Montgomery boycott, in part because the law that Dr. King and the Montgomery Improvement Association are arrested under has its origins with the streetcar boycott movement in Alabama and a very unjust, unconstitutional law that was written to suppress them at the turn of the century. And so when King goes to court and sues and wins, he is defeating that law. He is stepping into the footprints that were already there of a boycott 50 years prior. 

And so without that groundwork of that original protest, the injustice of the 1954 moment…1955 moment can’t come to the fore. So you can’t know. You can’t know what the results of your work will be. But what a tremendous legacy they did leave. 

KEW: Exactly. And I think that you see that not only with the streetcar movement, but even with Black Reconstruction. You know, for all of the narratives around Reconstruction failing, they gave us something. They gave the nation…they gave Black folks something to build upon because you wouldn’t have a civil rights movement if you didn’t have that movement before. 

BK: Absolutely. And your work shows us that, that, you know, that the tremendous testimony that that generation was willing to make and the vision that they had of what was possible is incredible. And that insistence on that vision is what we can see. That’s the thread that we can pull throughout these hundred years.

KEW: What lessons did African-Americans and their allies learn about fighting racist injustice from the streetcar campaigns, do you think? 

BK: It’s interesting because when I think about it, I do think it’s mixed. I think there were probably people who did not know what they did. I looked for a really long time to see if I could figure out if Martin Luther King knew about the streetcar boycotts in Montgomery, and I could not find any evidence that he ever did. And as a person who clearly loved history in the arc of history, if he had known, I’m pretty sure he would have brought it up. 

So in some ways, you know, there is a shaming and a silencing that comes in having to accept second-class citizenship, and having to put your gaze down and step back past a whole car full of seats to sit in the back, as if you are not equal. You know, talking to the people in my family, they all have those memories of having to board. My mother, who grew up in New Jersey, did not know about segregated buses until she came south to stay with her aunt in the summertime. And she had plunked down in that first seat, and her aunt just grabbed her by the arm and drug her up the aisle.

And so, you know, my great aunt may have remembered the stories of that fight for inclusion and yet had to train her children and the young people in her family to comply with something she knew wasn’t right. And so I do think, as much as there is a memory and a sharing, there’s also a pain and a shame that come along with that loss. 

KEW: You write that streetcar protests remind us that tolerance was not consent. And so could you tell us a little bit about that? 

BK: Yes. That, you know, to go back to the Booker T. Washington example and the idea that, you know, there is an up-building of Black life and an acceptance of segregation in this generation, that acceptance comes after a fight. That acceptance comes after the acknowledgment that it’s wrong, that it’s not the proper way to look at them. That acceptance comes with shielding their children as much as possible from the barbs of that world, of having to speak to whites in a certain way or hop off sidewalks and walk in the mud, or accept degraded circumstances. 

They have to tolerate certain aspects of public life, but they don’t believe it’s true. And they don’t believe that that is the sum of who they are, and they don’t raise their children to think that that’s the sum of who they are. And that is the root of how Black generations can continue to fight, is that they have to get through the world but they don’t have to believe the stories the world tells.

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom, I’m Kidada Williams. I’m speaking with historian Blair Kelley about the legacies of streetcar boycotts at the turn of the 20th century, and what we can learn from their successes, as well as their failures.

One of the nuances that comes up in your chapter—the last chapter on failure—is the difference between the changes that an individual is able to bring about themselves versus the changes that a collective can call for. So how did that difference operate in the Jim Crow era, especially when it came to streetcar boycotts?

BK: I think, you know, one of my favorite cases is the case of Ida B. Wells, and it’s one of the very first political things that she does in her life. She sues the railway for throwing her out of the first class car where she had purchased a ticket for it to ride, and she bites the conductor’s hand. And she reminds us of who Ida B. Wells really was, you know, a real fighter and a person who was insistent on what was right. But, you know, by herself, she loses her case. She writes about it. She builds awareness, but she loses by herself. But she inspires people to think about segregation and its meanings. Her writings build a collective consciousness. 

But we have to remember that segregationists invested in a losing hand here. They were not investing in welcoming Black customers who were—in many of these cities—a large percentage of those who rode. They were making those folks mad. They were keeping them off the cars…Those things were costly to their companies, and so racism didn’t pay well. And so it’s important to remember that, through that collectivity, you can make those larger points. You can opt out of systems that are not respecting your humanity. By yourself, it’s hard to make that impact, but as a large group—let alone as a region—you can make a difference. 

KEW: And so have we seen that change over time? Or do you think it still plays out for today? 

BK: I don’t know. You know, young people are very—I said that like an old lady…[laughs] “Young people today!”—are very hesitant about boycotts. And you know, I think the Kellogg’s boycott was sort of like the last time I was hearing sort of a contemporary conversation about boycotts. But I still think it’s such a powerful wedge for thinking about the ways in which we can speak back into a world that is corporate driven and, you know, very concerned with bottom lines. 

And it’s powerful even right now to see people opting out of work that doesn’t take care of them anymore, to really sort of boycott working as a waitress or at a restaurant for low pay and low tips. People are basically saying, “Well, that’s not acceptable anymore.” And so it’s fascinating for me to see, you know, all these folks who really believe in market principles say, “What’s wrong with them?” 

Well, this is the market. This is the current market for the piss poor job you have. It’s not so good. So you’re either going to pay people better, give them something more, give them proper benefits, respect them for the sacrifices they are making in those spaces, or you won’t have workers. And so I think it’s such a powerful reminder that opting out does have power. 

KEW: As someone who studies movements, you know all too well the price of activism. What price did streetcar movement activists pay?

BK: Several of the people who are fighting for justice in this generation lose not only just because of the boycotts, but just, you know, their general sense of fighting for justice as a whole. I think of J. Max Barber, who was a journalist who wrote for The Voice of the Negro in Atlanta, founds this beautiful journal, gathers these stories from around the country, writes about the startling celerity of these movements across the south, and then has to flee Atlanta in the wake of 1906 and the race massacre there. He’s threatened with a tribunal who wants him to prove he did not report accurately on what was happening during the Atlanta race riot, and ends up leaving journalism. 

Ida B Wells of course, most famously, has to flee. A mob burns down her newspaper offices. She, you know, sets up in Chicago and does amazing work for another set of decades—on so many different causes, it’s hard to keep up—but at the same time, you know, she has to run. She has to run from the community where she wanted to live and where she wanted to report on what was going on. There’s so many folks who were talented, who were right, who were speaking out for justice and who pay tremendous costs and never get made whole again in that fight.

KEW: With police and vigilante killings of African-Americans, worsening segregation, and attacks on both voting rights and free elections, a number of people have described our time now as a new nadir, a new low point for the nation and specifically for Black people. Are there things you think people can and should be doing today to confront this using the lessons of the streetcar campaigns or any of the earlier lessons of this time period? 

BK: I was thinking about it this morning. The horrifying nature of many of these voting laws that have been passed in the wake of this—particularly this past election, but have been coming for a while now—really call for us to strategize. So as much as it would be good to have the federal government step in and pass protective laws, are there ways that voters can simply just strategize their way through, if there will be few voting stations and longer lines? Are there schedules that we could put folks on to do swing shifts? Are there ways to to think through turnout? Are there ways to think through making sure that everybody’s voice is heard in substantive ways? 

And how can we continue to put folks on the ballot who really do represent what we want, after all that fight, just to vote? You know, I’m a big, big fan of Stacey Abrams. I call her my president, and I was so inspired by the strategy she put to work for Georgia that really paid off—and that so many other local organizations in that state were putting to work—to really work through the challenges that they had had in the previous election. And so I want to see that all over the country, I want to see that at midterms, I want to see that at presidential elections, so that we are thinking just as hard as those who would limit the access to democracy about what is possible. 

KEW: So I have a related but different question. Do you have any ideas for how we confront the realities of voter apathy? 

BK: It’s powerful, isn’t it?  

KEW: The reason I bring this up is because, there is this whole sort of thing like everyone just says “Vote!” but…Sometimes people think it’s an either/or—you either vote or you don’t vote, or you vote but you don’t do anything else, or you do something else, but you don’t vote. 

BK: So that part is what I think when I said, you know, have people on the ballot that really represent what people want to see. You know? I would love to see that everyone that says, “I don’t want to vote. I’m not interested.” explore if you want to be on the ballot. Because if you are that discontent, perhaps you are the right person to run for office, to be the kind of person that would inspire others to get out; would inspire folks who feel disconnected from our systems. It’s a system that’s currently in front of us. 

And so, you know, our toleration again is not our consent. So to say that I’m voting and I’m participating doesn’t say that I…this is the system that I envision; that this is the perfect system for me. It’s saying that I have to survive, that I’m in this generation and I need to survive to get to the next one. And so I might have to tolerate dealing with circumstances that are less than ideal and less than just, but with the hopes of building something more just—continuing the argument and continuing that fight. And so I mean, you know, I study movements. Black Panthers ran for office, right? You know, folks who believed in revolution ran political campaigns. And so I don’t think it’s anathema to radicalism to run for office. 

KEW: Right. Because you have to be honest about how power works and how to wield power. And the ballot is one way—it’s not the only way—but it’s one way to wield power.  

BK: Absolutely. Absolutely. And especially these local elections. I mean, we can see the effects that local and state decision makers are making right now. Think of the impact if we could do it in the opposite direction, to do it for justice, to do it, for access, to do it for the furtherance of democracy. 

KEW: Movements past and present always have this time issue. You’re reading and debating, but radical change always seems to be called for immediately. And the stakes of waiting or delaying are so high, the lives and deaths of people are actually on the line. So how do you wrap your mind around the fact that there are only so many hours in the day, only so many fights you can wage at one time, and that transformative movements require investments in the long game…one you may not live to win? 

BK: That’s something I think about a lot, because I’m a Black woman academic—there are so many black women academics who die quite young. The burdens on our bodies are great, and we’re not activists. We’re teachers, we’re researchers, we’re scholars. So I can imagine the anxieties, the wear and tear of the worries, the fear—having to deal with the adrenaline of movement making—would be quite great. And when we look at past generations and current generations of men and women activists, you know, oftentimes people are not living long lives. 

So I’ve been thinking about, you know, the ways that we can tend to ourselves—to build communities of care that are conscious of the movement work and the scholarly work we want to do—but recognize that we are just in human bodies and have only so much capacity. And I try to personally stay in the lane that I think I was called to be in. I think I’m a teacher, a mentor, a scholar, a researcher, a writer.

These are the things that make me glad on the inside when I get to do them. And so those are the things I try to do. I don’t try to be everything for everybody, you know? And so I think we all have to know our calling, or find our calling, or seek our calling and do our best and let that be our contribution to the world. 

KEW: This season, we’re asking a number of our guests what they think and hope free Black futures look like. Do you have a vision—how do we get there? Or your role in it? 

BK: I don’t know. I mean, I’m kind of a pessimist [laughs], so it’s hard for me to do “Freedom dreams” and things like that. Hmm. It’s a hard question for the pessimist. You know, I think of our communities and our schools. And I pray for a world where there are good places to educate Black children where they’ll be supported, not only in sort of the resources in the curriculum in front of them, but in terms of the stories that they are told about who they are and what they’re capable of doing.

A world where we are interested in feeding and caring for everyone because we have enough resources to do that, to prevent childhood poverty, to prevent adult poverty. You know, I pray for balance, I pray for our peace of mind because I think it’s a hard world we’re living in right now. And it would be nice if we could be more humane to one another, and more thoughtful about each and every person’s journey.

KEW: So what you want is justice, Blair. You want justice.

BK: I want justice. I want freedom, I want soft justice, too, I want, like, fun justice with art and music and dancing and good food. You know I want food [laughs]. 

KEW: Exactly, yeah, but you know the sort of justice in terms of justice being like a kind of public love and a public caring for each other and everyone has what they need, in order to not just survive but thrive. 

BK: Yes. Yes. I mean, nothing sickens me more than someone saying that, you know, we can’t give free lunches to kids because, like duh, yes you can. And so, you know, at least in this COVID moment, you know, my son came home and was like, “Mommy, I got lunch from the line and I don’t have to pay for it.” I’m like, “Isn’t that cool baby?” He’s like, “That is really good. Cause maybe somebody’s mommy wouldn’t have the money.” I was like, “I know, that’s right.”  

Because, you know, young people know that already. You know, young people are in touch with sharing and giving to each other. And it is only, you know, that we’re taught that we have to hoard and that we have to, you know, teach people how to work or teach people how to have good habits, as if those who say that are really working as hard as those who need it.

KEW: That was Blair Kelley. She’s Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. Find her on Twitter at prof B L M Kelley – with two “e’s” – and order “Right to Ride” wherever you get your books.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart