That unforgettable Journey of Reconciliation in 1947 which desegregated bus rides in U.S.

Stephen Nartey November 28, 2022
The campaigners on Journey of Reconciliation/photo credit: amsouth.unc.edu

The 1947’s Journey of Reconciliation was a blatant attempt to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Morgan v. Virginia that prohibited segregated seating in buses across states on a large scale. The decision by two civil rights activists was described as suicidal and one that will lead to bloodshed that will not make significant gains.

But, the proponents were adamant to challenge the status quo where persons of African descent cannot sit in front of buses during interstate travel. Earlier, one of the key protagonists and World War II veteran Wilson A. Head in 1946 decided to experiment on a low scale by testing the Supreme Court ruling at his level.

He boarded a Greyhound bus in Atlanta en route to Washington, D.C. While on the journey he was harassed, intimidated and taunted but he was unflinching in his pursuit. At some point during the journey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the police harassed him with guns pointed at his head. He arrived unscathed in Washington, D.C. achieving the success he had set his eyes on.

Another civil rights campaigner who undertook such a dangerous journey was Bayard Rustin. He decided to make a journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Nashville. He chose to sit in the second row of the bus. He challenged the bus driver when he ordered him to move to the back of the bus.

He was able to arrive at Nashville in the very seat he sat in when the bus left Louisville, but unlike Head, he was assaulted; city police arrested and sent him to the police station. He insisted on his right to sit where he felt welcomed. They pushed him but he didn’t budge. One police officer retorted that he must have been crazy to still stand his ground and sent him on his way, according to SNCC Digital.  

It is against this experience of Rustin and Head that they decided to organize a bus ride but on a larger scale. Rustin was then serving as a treasurer of the Congress of Racial Equality and was the co-secretary of race relations for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

They were resolute to set another precedent that desegregated interstate buses and reaffirm the Supreme Court ruling. The Journey of Reconciliation was to give life to Morgan’s ruling. They planned the journey through routes that complied with Jim Crow restrictions. They decided to involve lawyers and prominent opinion leaders after raising funds and holding meetings about the bus ride.

There were some key campaigners who questioned the effectiveness of the strategy they adopted to make a case. A prominent member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall, remarked that the journey was only going to lead to bloodshed and should be aborted. The journey however included white participants so that in the event of the inevitable the casualty rate will be minimized.

The Journey of Reconciliation on April 9, 1947, began with the campaigners boarding buses from Washington, D.C. They were made up of eight White and eight Black men and they planned to visit 15 cities in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.

One of the objectives was to raise awareness about the Supreme Court ruling on the Morgan case and deal with any possible chaos that may arise while recording any incident that may happen in a bid to further challenge the segregation laws.

Despite the stiff opposition from NAACP leaders, the majority of the Black community endorsed the journey and threw their support behind the campaigners. The journey tested 26 places with regard to seating in the front row of buses during the two-week period of the journey. Out of the 26 tests, the group was arrested six times. Four riders were picked up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a car of angry white men wielding sticks and rocks followed their vehicle after they were released on bail.

The Journey of Reconciliation became one of the non-violent approaches to challenge segregation laws.

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