Privately Run Busses, the Civil Rights Movement, and State-Run Taxi Cartels

March 20th, 2011

The New York Times has an interesting piece on a book titled the Wheels of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement that tells the story of “Worcy Crawford, who died in July at age 90, leaving a graveyard of decaying buses behind his house on the outskirts of Birmingham.”

His private coaches, all of them tended by Mr. Crawford almost until the day he died, do not have the panache of the city buses that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.refused to ride. But they have significance nonetheless.

With their cracked windows and rusting engines thick with brambles, they are remnants of something that was quite rare in the South: a bus company owned by an African-American.

Mr. Crawford’s work was simple. He kept a segregated population moving. Any Birmingham child who needed a ride to school, a football game or a Girl Scout outing during the Jim Crow era and beyond most likely rode one.

“This is the only bus company that we had in the days of the segregationist era,” said Horace Huntley, who recently retired as a professor of African-American history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was a board member at the institute.

“Knowing the width and depth of segregation, this is something that was very, very necessary if black people were to move from point A to point B in any semblance of numbers,” Dr. Huntley said. “The importance of it goes without saying.”

Mr. Crawford’s first job in the transportation business was taking the popular Ensley All-Stars black baseball team to games around the South in a truck he used to haul coal. He traded the truck for a bus in 1951.

“As far as I knew I was the only black person that had a bus,” he told his son.

What the article does not mention is the role that state-run transportation cartels played. In the South, following many boycotts of public transportation systems, many African Americans began to run privately run bus services, like Mr. Crawford. In response to this, Jim Crow imposed a number of regulatory measures that only permitted those with certain licenses to run taxi and bus services. Unsurprisingly, these permits were not awarded to African American entrepreneurs. The role between economic liberty, de jure segregation, and state-imposed cartels is so visible and palpable in this case. Mr. Crawford was a champion for civil rights, and a case study for the importance of economic liberty.

Bridget Crawford has more here.

Update: TIm Sandefur emailed (I wrote e-mail, then changed it) this post he wrote last year:

Martin Luther King’s famous Montgomery bus boycott is a milestone in the history of civil rights. What many people don’t know is that it also provides an important lesson in the way that occupational licensing laws limit our freedom.

For King’s bus boycott to succeed, he and his followers were forced to provide an alternative transportation network to get people who normally rode buses to work. The solution they hit upon was a ride-sharing scheme organized through the churches. People with cars volunteered to drive carpools of people to their destinations every morning, and then on Sundays, the churches would collect donations to pay for car maintenance (particularly tires). This was a very large undertaking, because so many people were needing so many rides every day.

City officials therefore responded by seeking an injunction to shut down the whole network as an unlicensed taxi-cab operation. Officials in Baton Rouge had strangled a bus boycott in this way only a couple years earlier. And it worked in Montgomery, too! It was only King’s good fortune that the court shut down the transportation network on the same day that segregation on the bus lines was held unconstitutional. Thus the boycott succeeded in the nick of time.

Nevertheless, for the final months of the boycott, participants were forced to walk to their destinations because their alternative rides had been declared illegal.

I tell this story in my article, “Can You Get There from Here? How The Law Still Threatens King’s Dream,” which you can read online here.