October 27, 2005
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
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.
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.
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.
2005 Creators Syndicate