Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2005 / 24 Tishrei,
Rosa Parks and history
The death of Rosa Parks has reminded us of her place in history,
as the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white
man, in accordance with the Jim Crow laws of Alabama, became the spark that
ignited the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Most people do not know the rest of the story, however. Why was
there racially segregated seating on public transportation in the first
place? "Racism" some will say and there was certainly plenty of racism in
the South, going back for centuries. But racially segregated seating on
streetcars and buses in the South did not go back for centuries.
Far from existing from time immemorial, as many have assumed,
racially segregated seating in public transportation began in the South in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Those who see government as the solution to social problems may
be surprised to learn that it was government which created this problem.
Many, if not most, municipal transit systems were privately owned in the
19th century and the private owners of these systems had no incentive to
segregate the races.
These owners may have been racists themselves but they were in
business to make a profit and you don't make a profit by alienating a lot
of your customers. There was not enough market demand for Jim Crow seating
on municipal transit to bring it about.
It was politics that segregated the races because the incentives
of the political process are different from the incentives of the economic
process. Both blacks and whites spent money to ride the buses but, after the
disenfranchisement of black voters in the late 19th and early 20th century,
only whites counted in the political process.
It was not necessary for an overwhelming majority of the white
voters to demand racial segregation. If some did and the others didn't care,
that was sufficient politically, because what blacks wanted did not count
politically after they lost the vote.
The incentives of the economic system and the incentives of the
political system were not only different, they clashed. Private owners of
streetcar, bus, and railroad companies in the South lobbied against the Jim
Crow laws while these laws were being written, challenged them in the courts
after the laws were passed, and then dragged their feet in enforcing those
laws after they were upheld by the courts.
These tactics delayed the enforcement of Jim Crow seating laws
for years in some places. Then company employees began to be arrested for
not enforcing such laws and at least one president of a streetcar company
was threatened with jail if he didn't comply.
None of this resistance was based on a desire for civil rights
for blacks. It was based on a fear of losing money if racial segregation
caused black customers to use public transportation less often than they
would have in the absence of this affront.
Just as it was not necessary for an overwhelming majority of
whites to demand racial segregation through the political system to bring it
about, so it was not necessary for an overwhelming majority of blacks to
stop riding the streetcars, buses and trains in order to provide incentives
for the owners of these transportation systems to feel the loss of money if
some blacks used public transportation less than they would have otherwise.
People who decry the fact that businesses are in business "just
to make money" seldom understand the implications of what they are saying.
You make money by doing what other people want, not what you want.
Black people's money was just as good as white people's money,
even though that was not the case when it came to votes.
Initially, segregation meant that whites could not sit in the
black section of a bus any more than blacks could sit in the white section.
But whites who were forced to stand when there were still empty seats in the
black section objected. That's when the rule was imposed that blacks had to
give up their seats to whites.
Legal sophistries by judges "interpreted" the 14th Amendment's
requirement of equal treatment out of existence. Judicial activism can go in
That's when Rosa Parks came in, after more than half a century
of political chicanery and judicial fraud.
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