I only traveled south of the Mason-Dixon Line during the Jim Crow era three times, all of them to Florida by airplane in 1957, 1959 and 1960. None of those trips counted toward experiencing what life was like in the segregated South even though Florida was then as separate and unequal as any other southern state. Why? Each time, I flew non-stop between New York and Miami, twice on Eastern and once on National Airlines. Passing over the invisible Mason-Dixon Line at 20,000 feet or higher, Jim Crow was impossible to see, feel or experience.
I took these flights to visit my father then stationed at Homestead AFB. John Sr. was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, a navigator / weapons officer by trade flying B-47 bombers as part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). I have no recollection of any form of segregation or discrimination whatsoever on the base. I remained isolated from the Jim Crow South on every level during my travels and stays in Florida. The FAA controlled air travel, the services were fully integrated, my father and his family lived in base housing and most of their friends were other USAF officers and their families.
The South began to explode in a great Civil Rights campaign just after my December 1960 visit. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led the battle in spirit and in action. Lyndon B. Johnson aided these efforts when he became President of the United States. MLK Jr. fought with undaunted courage and LBJ did what no other President could do, he engineered passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These two men, each in their own way were at the right place and time to force open the gates so that many other brave men and women could turn the course of race relations in the USA on its head and make us a better, though still incomplete, nation.
Had my father insisted that I travel by train on any one of these visits, my experience may have been very different. Back then, passenger trains still carried as many travelers as the airlines. Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Lines dominated the coastal route from New York’s Pennsylvania Station to Jacksonville, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami while the Illinois Central owned the traffic out of Chicago reaching south to cities on the Gulf Coast from Gainesville, Tampa and Sarasota to Fort Myers.
Their trains had magical names; Illinois Central had the Panama Limited and the City of Miami, ACL operated the Silver Meteor, Silver Comet and Silver Star. Seaboard offered the Champion and the Palmetto. But nowhere in the glossy brochures or advertisements for these luxury trains did any of these railroads or travel agents explain or even mention that service was subject to Jim Crow once passengers crossed that invisible line, the “Cotton Curtain.”
Had I set out from Penn Station to visit the “old man” on one of those trips, I would have traveled south in a reserved seat on the Pennsylvania Railroad with a through coach ticket south of Union Station. On the ride from New York through Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore to Washington DC, black and white passengers would cohabitate the coaches but white conductors and black porters would advise black customers continuing south of DC to move into the Jim Crow coaches in the front of the train before it departed Union Station. (If these passengers were riding Illinois Central trains from Chicago, they would receive the same admonition once they reached the Ohio River where the train would cross from Illinois into Kentucky.)
The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 changed all that but not over night. Jim Crow had been in existence since the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and old habits died hard both for Southern whites and blacks. Conductors who worked the trains south of DC continued to enforce the-now illegal Jim Crow laws by ordering the porters to herd black travelers into Jim Crow coaches. Some of these same travelers voluntarily moved to avoid confrontations.
Some porters didn’t follow orders and counseled their charges that they were entitled to the same reserved seat through to their destination. One such porter was George Swanson Starling.* Mr. Starling had fled Florida at the end of World War II after unsuccessfully trying to organize orange grove pickers. He escaped to New York City one step ahead of the sheriff.
By the mid-1960s Mr. Swanson was one of Seaboard’s veteran porters who would take aside passengers on the run from Baltimore to DC to explain their rights. “Going below Washington, they want us to move y’all up front in the Jim Crow car. But if you paid an extra fee to reserve this seat, you are entitled to keep this seat to your point of destination. But they not gonna tell you that. They gonna tell you, you got to move up front.”
“Just tell ‘em, ‘Look, I have a reserved seat from New York to Jacksonville and I’m not moving anywhere. Now if you want me to move, you get the cops and come and move me. I’m not voluntarily moving anywhere.”
That was the kind of courage it took to implement the Civil Rights Act and change the landscape. They defied illegal orders at the risk of employment retribution to carry the day. George Swanson Starling did what he had to do. He wouldn’t think so but he was a hero.
* Mr. Starling is featured in: The Warmth of Other Suns, The epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.