I'm on my way to Asheville, N.C., for a conference on the car in American history and society. It's a Liberty Fund Colloquium titled "Automobility, Place and Freedom."
It sounds weighty, profound and academic. But it's a relatively simple matter to me. I've always viewed automobiles as freedom rides.
That perception encompasses more than post-pubescent lust for four-wheeled independence. Like most American teenagers, I wanted a car. But as a black boy in New Orleans, I wanted it for different reasons. I was tired of walking to the back of segregated buses, tired of seeing the adults I loved being forced to sit behind a movable placard that read: "No Colored Beyond This Sign."
It was a matter of personal dignity. I was better than that. My parents and other adult relatives were better than that; and so we were determined to rid ourselves of that daily insult to our being.
We bought cars, mostly Chevrolets. My Aunt Julia Brown was one of the first people in our family to get one, a tan and cream 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air. It became the family bus for trips to what was once the "Colored Only" Lincoln Beach in New Orleans, or for rides to visit relatives in New Iberia, La., or Natchez, Miss.
We could sit wherever we pleased in those big Chevrolets -- that is, everywhere except behind the wheel when we were kids. But that was okay. Our parents or other black, licensed adults sat in the driver's seat. And it was good, for once, to see black adults in charge of something in a land that said they were in charge of nothing.
I remember things. We Brown children in 1958 accompanied our mother, Lillian, on a Greyhound bus ride to visit her parents, Mama Dora and Poppa Provost, in New Iberia. Aunt Julia's much-traveled '54 Bel Air was out of commission.
It was a frightening bus ride. A black woman was holding a baby who wouldn't stop crying. The white bus driver became angry. He stopped the bus and walked to the rear and harshly ordered the woman to silence the baby.
The black woman screamed at the driver, who then slapped the woman. Our mother rose to her feet and cursed the driver in language that would make a modern rap star blanch. Apparently, the driver was as shocked and as frightened by her performance as we were. He turned heel, returned to the driver's seat and drove in perfect silence for the rest of the journey.
We were all proud of our mother's action. Our father, Daniel, who wasn't with us on that trip, was proud, too. But we heard him later tell our mother -- we called her "Mermere," which came out more like "Mom-eeh" -- that she was "crazy." He told her not to ever do something like that again.
To enforce his edict, Dad pulled our mother out of buses altogether and put her in a car, a Rambler American. (There was no way "Mermere" would own the same kind of car that Julia, Dad's sister, owned.) But the Rambler did not keep our mother out of trouble. She had a knack for telling off policemen who would stop her for speeding when, she alleged, "there were all of those white people going a lot faster."
I have long believed that the civil rights movement, which began with the Montgomery (Ala.) Bus Boycott, would have been a failure had it not been for the automobile. The boycott's success itself supports that theory.
Long before the legendary Rosa Parks defied a white Montgomery bus driver's order to move to the back of the bus, the city's blacks had grown weary of such routine assaults on their dignity. Perhaps it was an accumulation of those frustrations that prompted Parks, on that fateful Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, to refuse to give up her seat near the front of the bus to allow a white man to sit down. Whatever the cause, she did what she did and blacks in Montgomery supported her by refusing to ride the city's buses until they could sit wherever they wanted to sit.
During that boycott, blacks used personal cars to create what was called a "private taxi" system. They shared rides, carried one another to work and to school -- and to churches. Black churches bought station wagons to help support the "private taxi" operation.
Montgomery police responded by ticketing black drivers at will, especially if they were carrying passengers. Local auto insurers either refused to insure vehicles used in the black taxi campaign or they charged excessive premiums, according to African American historian Lisa Cozzens, who has written several papers on the boycott.
But the boycotters persisted, using their private automobiles to drive around Jim Crow -- avoiding both its buses and its downtown businesses in segregated Montgomery.
Blacks returned to the city's buses on Dec. 21, 1956. But by then, according to Cozzens, they had begun a long drive to freedom -- the ensuing decade-long civil rights movement -- that led to the death of Jim Crow, the rise of the women's liberation movement and the birth of other civil rights struggles at home and abroad.