Online report of the Progressive Review. For 53 years, the news while there's still time to do something about it.
May 10, 2016
How one guy became an activist
Fifty years ago, I
was editing an early version of what would become known as the underground
press. But I was a writer, not an activist, until something happened. . .An article I wrote at the time:
Sam Smith, The Idler, 1966 - Monday January 24th was
the day that Washington thumbed it nose at O.Roy Chalk. There is a long list
of grievances against Mr. Chalk a Washingtonian could compile, but it is enough
here to mention that Mr. Chalk is head
of the D. C. Transit System and that Mr. Chalk, on the day in question, was in
the midst of petitioning the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission
for a fare increase from twenty-five cents to thirty cents. On the morning of
the 24th, about 7 a.m., my alarm went off, but I didn’t hear it. About twenty minutes to eight I awoke and remembered
the promise I had made to myself to take part in the bus boycott that day. I
don’t like demonstrating, probably for the same reason I don’t like ringing
door-bells during a campaign, being on committees, or attending civic meetings.
The theory of democracy. I concluded long ago, is fine: the practice of it is
often a pain in the neck.
Still, thirty cents is a
lot of money to pay for a bus ride. It’s more than most public transit riders
in the country pay. John Lindsay had only recently emerged from a bruising
fight with New York transit workers; one of the major issues had been maintenance
of a fifteen cent fare. It seemed to many Washingtonians that Mr. Chalk and his
company were making enough money already and that, in any event, thirty cents
was too much to demand of thousands who rely upon bus transportation for the
simple reason that there is nothing cheaper.
So I hauled myself out of
bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to
6th and H Sts. NE, one of the assembly points established for volunteer
drivers providing free car rides during the boycott. There a boycott organizer
filled my car with three high school girls and a middle aged and rather fat
lady. A bus drove by and it was empty. “They’re all empty,” the lady said. It
was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered whether she was right.
As we drove west along H. St., I asked one of the students, “Has there been a
lot of .talk about the boycott at your school?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve been
hearing about it on us teenager’s favorite radio station.” “WOL?” “Yeah man,
soul radio.” A bus passed us with two passengers in it. “That’s why I’ve got
my transistor,” the fat lady said, and she showed me the portable radio she
grasped under a purse and a shopping bag with a green floral design on it. The
radio stations, particularly the Negro ones, were playing up the boycott. This
was important since the daily papers had not been overly generous with their
coverage. If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent proposed
fare increase would cost them twenty cents a day. That’s the price of a loaf of
bread. Over the course of the year it would probably cost them as much as they
spent in groceries during a month. Nickels add up. I let off my passengers and
headed back to 6th & H.
At Florida & New York, I
counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the
morning and the boycott was working. With the type of metabolism I’ve got, it’s
pretty damn hard for me to feel exhilarated about anything before nine o’clock
in the morning. But when I saw those five empty buses it was different. Washington
was no longer taking it lying down. The people were being heard from. The city
was coming alive. Today it was talking back to 0. Roy Chalk. Tomorrow: perhaps
the Board of Trade and its opposition to home rule, or slum landlords and their
rat- infested basement apartments.
The boycott had been
organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the help of
numerous civic action organizations including the Coalition of Conscience, a
respectable group of mild hell-raisers under the impeccable leadership of a
white Episcopal bishop and a Negro minister. SNCC and the other groups charged
that the fare hike was discriminatory since it would largely hurt Negro
Washington. They scheduled the boycott primarily against nine heavily traveled
routes in the mostly Negro northeast section of town. But they also called for
city-wide walkout against D. C. Transit. Washington is a city of considerable
apathy in local matters. It has been so long denied home rule that it tends not
to believe that the voice of the people matters. It often accepts its fate with
a passivity that would surprise more politically conscious communities. When
demonstrations and protests are organized, the police are likely to outnumber
the demonstrators. Against this background, SNCC’s plan seemed audacious. It
was hard enough to get 100 Washingtonians organized. SNCC was trying to mobilize
tens of thousands. SNCC proposed that people walk, hitch a ride, or stay home
on the day of the boycott. High school students were urged to organize
walk-ins. Cars and volunteer drivers were sought. to pick up riders along the
boycotted bus lines. Domestics were asked to tell their employers that they
would have to be picked up. SNCC set up a communications headquarters, procured
radio equipped cars, and established car assembly points. Handbills were widely
distributed, stuck under doors and beneath the windshield wipers of parked
cars. The police stationed additional men along the boycott routes.
“It’s beautiful,” the man
in the :lightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for
17th St. NW. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there?
Let’s try and get them.” I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two
men stood. “Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the
pair. “You headed down town?” “Yeah, get in.” “Great. It’s working, huh?
The boycott was like an
informal game of touch football on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody was too good at
the game but everyone who played seemed to enjoy it just the same. Not everyone
played. As I made my way back from downtown, I stopped at several bus stops.
“Fight the fare increase: ride for free,” I’d call out. Most of those waiting
for the bus were white. Some pretended they didn’t hear me and looked the other
way. Others stared as if I were a little
crazy. Still others shook their head in that nervous, embarrassed way people do
when they’re refusing to buy pencils from a crippled man on the street corner.
During the day I carried
71 people. Only five of them were white. Three American University students.
One man on his way to a job interview in a crummy section of town. And one lady
who thought the boycott wasn’t going far enough. I wondered about those who rejected
my offer of a free ride. Perhaps they wanted a thirty cent fare. But I doubted
that. It was more likely they were apprehensive about anything that upset the
routine of life. They were more prosperous than the riders I picked up on
Benning Rd.; more successful than the cement-caked laborer who got in on
Florida Avenue; and had more reason to be satisfied with life than the Negro
maid I carried who commuted regularly halfway across town to a badly paid
But when someone offered
them a free ride they were afraid: Better not, he might rape me: What’s the
gimmick? Must be one of those agitators; hitching rides is dangerous . . . I
was glad to get back to Northeast Washington, where people were helping each
other out that Monday without apprehension. Life hadn’t done as well by them,
not by a damn sight, but at least they were not afraid of its novelties. It’s
too bad people get scared when they start to succeed. At the delicatessen at
24th and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young, wavy-haired Negro who
worked with SNCC greeted me. “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from
here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of
coffee?” “Thanks.” “I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We
got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.’’
The SNCC worker went to the pay phone and tried to reach the SNCC office. He
couldn’t. “Let’s go out to 34th and Benning.” We got into my car and continued
east out to Benning. Lots of empty buses. “We’ve got to live together, man.
You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still
can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed.
“You ever worked with
SNCC before?” “Nope.” “Well, I’ll tell you, man, you hear a lot of things. But
they’re a good group. They stick together. You
know like if you get in
trouble you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened
they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good,
People were sticking
together well that Monday. SNCC estimated D. C. Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000
fares during the boycott. Only occasionally did the enthusiasm for the boycott
threaten to get out of hand. One lady
said she had heard that kids at her boy’s school were going to wait at the bus
stops and beat up any of their schoolmates who got off D.C. Transit vehicles.
But there were no reports of this actually happening. More probably, it was
just talk. Like the lady in my car who
asked a man we had picked up at a downtown bus stop, “You weren’t waiting for a
bus, were you?” “No, I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.”
“That’s good. ’Cause if you were waiting
for a bus I was going to bop you over the head.” We all laughed and the man
reassured her again.
“You know,” the lady in
the back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going
to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick
and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses.
Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know you don’t have
nothing in this world until you get people together . . . Hey lookit over
there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.” He was. The car was full
again and we drove to the northeast end of town together.
None of us knew whether
the boycott would have any effect on the fare increase. Two days later, how
ever, the transit commission, in a unanimous decision, denied D. C. Transit the
hike. The commission’s executive director drily told reporters that the boycott
played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried
about such things as cash dividends, investor’s equity, rate of return,
depreciated value, company rate base. The boycotters worried about a nickel
more a ride. Fortunately, it all came out the same. But in case it hadn’t the
boycott organizers were preparing to renew the protest. It would have been
interesting. There is plenty more to protest in Washington. SNCC is already
planning a boycott of selected members of the Board of Trade, Washington’s
Chamber of Commerce, because of the board’s opposition to home rule. And the
passivity of the city’s citizens can no longer be taken for granted. 0. Roy
Chalk deserves at least some thanks for that.
After the bus
boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help
in the future. Not long after, the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague,
L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my apartment talking about how I could help in
SNCC's public relations. I readily agreed and, for the first time, joined a movement.