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Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day - and Considering 'Driving While Black'

Published Jan 22nd 2008, 2:53pm by Jody DeVere in Featured Articles

Ap_lorraine_motel A recent trip to Memphis left me with some free time in the afternoon before heading to the airport to return home. My friend and I were wondering how to pass a few hours, when he suggested we visit The Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. It was an eye-opening afternoon for me: I was raised in Hawthorne, California, in the 1970s, and grew up with the understanding that all us kids were the same -- even though I was a white girl and I was the minority among my own diverse peer group.

Forty years ago, on April 4, 1968, The Lorraine Motel was a small minority-owned business in the south end of downtown Memphis. The motel's owner, Walter Lane Bailey kept two rooms as a shrine to Dr. King as well as to his wife, Lorraine, who died of a brain hemorrhage several hours after King was shot. Ultimately, the hotel closed down, and group of prominent Memphians, concerned that the historic site would be destroyed through neglect and indifference, formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation to save the Lorraine.

Ap_boarding_house With support from the City of Memphis, Shelby County, the State of Tennessee, as well as many local banks, businesses, and community members, the National Civil Rights Museum opened its doors to visitors on September 29, 1991, and now houses a 12,800-square-foot exhibit titled "Exploring the Legacy." It also connects to the Main Street Rooming House across the street where James Earl Ray allegedly fired the fatal shot resulting in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martinlutherkingsite On this day, I'm challenged to consider how this holiday is relevant to a woman's automotive site, and I'm reminded of what things were like for black people during the 1960s. I didn't live through the Civil Rights era, so my understanding of racisim and segregation is guided largely by what I learned in history classes, by what I experienced during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, and by considering the moving exhibits at the museum.

The civil rights laws of the 1960s were intended to prohibit race and gender discrimination in the handful of markets -- employment, housing, and public accommodations -- in which discrimination was perceived to be particularly acute. But thanks to Thomas J. Sugrue and his Case Study titled "Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America" I am reminded that issues of transportation were especially significant.

Sugrue says: "From the late nineteenth century through the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, American blacks faced some of the harshest indignities of legal segregation on buses, streetcars, and trains... In the South, black patrons at bus and train stations were cordoned off into separate waiting rooms, with separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and (when they were provided to blacks at all) separate concession stands. Black passengers were required to sit at the back of buses and trolleys -- and to give up their seats to whites on demand."

The car provided southern blacks a way to subvert these Jim Crow laws, explains
Sugrue. Blacks who could afford to travel by car were able to avoid the everyday racial segregation of buses, trolleys, and trains. Driving gave southern blacks a degree of freedom that they did not have on public transportation or in most public places.

Unfortunately, even though cars brought some mobility,
Sugrue says driving still posed difficulties for blacks. African American travelers regularly carried buckets or portable toilets in their car trunks because service station bathrooms and roadside rest areas were usually closed to them. Black motorists also found it difficult to find places to stay: most roadside motels--north and south--refused to admit blacks. Diners and fine restaurants alike regularly turned away black customers.

Even outside of the South, and as recently as 15 years ago, the phenomenon of being stopped for "driving while black" continued, and black drivers were still regularly harassed by police officers. It was commonplace advice that black motorists should drive below the posted speed limit -- but not too slow as to attract attention -- because police officers would stop blacks for traveling even one mile an hour faster than what was posted.

And regardless of how much progress we may think we have made since then, fairly recent research at Consumer Affairs indicates that African-American car buyers usually end up paying more in interest charges. The article explains, "On 2004 loans for new car purchases, blacks paid a typical (median) rate of 7.0 percent compared to a typical rate of 5.0 percent for all borrowers. On used car loans, African-Americans paid a typical rate of 9.5 percent compared to a typical rate of 7.5 percent for all borrowers."

So on this date, it's important to remember that -- even though we have made great progress in the last 40 years towards the race equality this great man fought for -- we still have issues to overcome.

By Brandy Schaffels
Contributing Editor

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