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 it was government that 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 any direction.
That’s when Rosa Parks came in, after more than half a century of political chicanery and judicial fraud.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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