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“Supreme Court Decisions Just Are Not Enough”: The Need for Federal Legislation to Desegregate the South

The first laws passed in the South to impose statewide segregation in public facilities, instituted in the 1880s and 1890s, applied to railroad car seating. During this period, railway lines spread rapidly from cities to rural communities. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court validated these early “Jim Crow” laws when it ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana statute requiring “separate but equal” accommodations for white and black railroad passengers did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment clause guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the laws. (Jim Crow, the colloquial term for segregation, referred to a blackface character popular on the minstrel stage.) Jim Crow legislation extended throughout the South to schools, hotels, restaurants, streetcars, buses, theaters, hospitals, parks, courthouses, and even cemeteries. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that a Virginia statute requiring segregated seating interfered with interstate commerce and was thus invalid, the following testimony in 1954 by former Air Force lieutenant Thomas Williams revealed that Jim Crow travel laws remained in effect in the South and that seats for blacks were unequal to those available to whites. Although Williams stressed the need for federal legislation, the bills under consideration by the committee never made it to the House floor for a vote. In 1956, following a boycott by the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, against the city’s segregated bus system, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional.


. . . With your permission, sir, I would like to say that this gentleman before you is one of the examples of the finest type of American manhood. He was a student at Cornell University and left his work at the university to return to the Air Force as a lieutenant, during the Korean war. When he reentered the service of his own volition, he asked to be assigned to a fighter-pilot type of training. STATEMENT OF THOMAS WILLIAMS, CAMDEN, N. J.

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. Mr. Chairman, my name is Thomas Williams, 135 Cooper Street, Camden, N. J.

The following series of events will, I believe, show quite clearly the necessity for a definite, concrete law outlining the safeguarding of the constitutional rights of minority group interstate travelers.

In the summer of 1953, I was a member of the United States Air Force undergoing instructor pilot training at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala.

On June 23 of this year, I boarded a Coastal Trailways bus at Eglin Field, Valparaiso, Fla., with the intention of traveling to Montgomery, Ala., and from there to Craig Air Force Base. At the time that I entered the bus, it was practically empty. Nevertheless, in deference to local custom, I took the third seat, I believe, from the rear of the bus. By the time the bus reached the town of Crestview Fla., about an hour away, the bus had filled with white passengers and they were sitting behind me.

At this time, the bus driver came to the rear of the bus and told me I would have to move to the rear seat because “There is too much mixing back here.”

In the subsequent conversation he asked if I was a Negro. I told him yes, but then I explained to him that several Supreme Court decisions had indicated that segregation on interstate transport was illegal and I told him he was interfering with my constitutional rights.

The driver did admit that the bus was engaged in interstate travel, but just ignored my statement about the Supreme Court decisions. He made some comment about I was in the South now, as if that ordered it; as if the Supreme Court decisions had no effect in the South; as if he had never heard of the Supreme Court; as if it were inconceivable that his usual practices were not entirely legal.

If there had been a definite law outlining my rights, he would have been forced to act differently. As it was, he left the bus and returned with two deputy sheriffs, each of whom carried a gun and blackjack. These officers did discuss the matter in a fairly civil manner but when I told them that I would leave the bus rather than surrender rights granted me, the rights guaranteed me by the Constitution, and rights verified by the Supreme Court, they told me I would have to leave.

I left the bus in a peaceful manner without further argument, and throughout this discussion, I had spoken in moderate tones and I had used the most politic and decorous language possible. I was dressed in class A uniform and I am sure my appearance was in every way acceptable. Certainly, no one could claim that I had created a disturbance or acted in any manner unworthy of an Air Force officer.

Nevertheless, when I was outside the bus I was taken to the jail by the two officers. I was kept in the office for about 4 hours while someone “higher up” as they described him, made decisions as to what to do with me.

It was around 11 o’clock when I left the bus, and I sat around 4 hours. At 3 o’clock, I was formally charged with a crime of “being of one race and willfully occupying a seat reserved for another race.” I was fingerprinted and placed in a cell where I stayed until 3 o’clock in the morning, at which time I made arrangements with a bailbondsman to be released under bail. I was then forced to hitchhike to Montgomery, Ala., because of the lack of any sort of public transportation at that time of the morning.

I was treated fairly well while I was in jail at that time, but it was pointed out to me by one of the deputies that I was lucky not to get my head beat in; that it was probably only because I was an officer that prevented someone from doing so. To show me the “fairness” of his attitude, however, he also made the statement that they would beat in the head of any white person who did the same thing—if they sat in the colored section. That was supposed to make me feel better, I think.

I want to mention again the fact that, at no time, was I able to discuss with anyone the various Supreme Court decisions which should have shown the illegality of my arrest. It does not make any difference what their reason for ignoring my statement was; it does not make any difference whether they were just ignorant of the facts, or just ignorant; the important thing is that Supreme Court decisions just are not enough. It is necessary to have a law to prevent them from doing these things.

My arrest was publicized in the newspapers and on the radio. Upon my return to Craig Air Force Base, I was told by my superior officers that I had certain obligations to live up to as an officer and that I had to be more tactful than the ordinary person.

They went on to say that everyone else respected the Florida customs—why shouldn’t I? My arguments about the Supreme Court decisions again were to no avail. No one had heard of them and they kept pointing out the definite existence of a Florida law that I had broken. They continued to point out a certain law, and said that I had broken it and I could not point out any law that said that the Florida law is illegal. All I could do was to talk about the Supreme Court decisions. I was told I would hear more from the Air Force about the matter.

My first trial came up in July. The wide interest in the case was evidenced by the packed courtroom. After hearing the arguments of both prosecution and defense, the judge ruled that he was not qualified to rule on the constitutionality of the Florida law, and, was, therefore, sending the case to a higher court.

But from the comment that I heard around the courtroom, many people were displeased, and it became evident that they were displeased when two men followed me from the courtroom and arrested me some distance from Crestview in a little town which was only a crossroads, Laurel Hill, Fla. I was arrested for speeding and taken back to Crestview, Fla., and placed in jail again. At some time or other, the charge of reckless driving was added to the speeding charge.

At this time in jail there was a definite change in the attitude on the part of my jailers. I was immediately placed in a cell alone without being able to make a telephone call or see anyone. It was nighttime before I was able to see a bailbondsman who told me that there was no purpose in getting me out because I would just be arrested again. But luckily my arrest had been publicized on the radio and I was able to get out on bail through the intervention of interested people who had heard of my arrest. The first time I was treated fairly well, because I think there was the possibility that they felt that I was—just had made a mistake in some way; and when it became evident that I was going to stand up for my rights, evidently they became irritated and I feel that that is the reason for their change in attitude. Whenever a person stands up for his rights, it seemed to me that these Florida officers just became obstinate and were going to insist on doing what they would regardless of any Supreme Court decisions or regardless of the illegality of what they were doing.

Upon returning to Craig, I received a written reprimand from the Air Force. This reprimand became a permanent part of my Air Force records and were always and will always be in there. Incidentally, this reprimand was given to me, although I had not been tried or convicted yet. Evidently my superior officers felt that I had erred in originally refusing to move from my seat on the bus.

The reprimand states that I “cannot choose which laws I will or will not obey.” In view of the conversation I had had with my commanding officer, this was all obvious reference to my “choosing” to break a Florida law.

In my opinion, these actions reflected a prejudicial attitude on the part of these officers, but they were able to cloak their actions with excuses because of the lack of any clear law authorizing my actions. They were always able to say I broke the law. I was never able to point out any law which authorized anything that I did.

At this time, the Air Force was choosing officers to be separated under the reduction-in-force program necessitated by budget cutbacks. I was recommended by the Craig Air Force Base commander to be considered for separation. Air Force officials in the Pentagon later considered my case and decided that I would have been selected for separation because of inexperience and other considerations even if I had not been recommended for separation because of the Florida incidents. So I was separated from the Service on November 24, 1953.

In November, I was convicted by a Florida jury on the segregation charge and fined $100. The case is being appealed to a higher court.

Again I think that illustrates the fact that no matter what the Supreme Court decisions say, certain people are going to do what they want to anyhow. I was convicted, despite the Supreme Court decisions.

Well, laying aside consideration of just why I was separated from the Air Force, it is undeniable that I was arrested twice, spent 2 days in jail, was inconvenienced from both the natural and time standpoint; was publicly embarrassed, received a reprimand from the Air Force, and was recommended for separation, merely because I wished to remain in a seat on a bus that I had paid for—seat that the very Constitution of the United States guarantees me. To avoid any confusion of the basic issue, I have not fully outlined the personal inconveniences caused me. I have outlined only the salient, incontrovertible facts.

It is evident, I hope, that one Federal law could have prevented the aforementioned occurrences and a thousand kindred ones. I hope they will be prevented in the future.

The CHAIRMAN. As I understand it, when you took this bus in Florida to go to Montgomery, Ala., it was nearly empty.


The CHAIRMAN. And you took a seat at the rear of the bus?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. Toward the rear. I would say it was some three seats from the rear.

The CHAIRMAN. Was that within the portion that you understood had been designated for people of your race?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. As I understand it, there is no particular portion. The colored start from the rear and the white start from the front. The white start from the front and take the seats as they fill up; they take each seat toward the rear, the more people come in, the further back they extend, and the colored people start from the rear and fill the bus toward the front.

The CHAIRMAN. So when you took the seat in the rear, there were many vacant seats in front of you that you assumed would be used for white folks who got on the bus?


The CHAIRMAN. And after the bus filled up, that the operator came to you and told you to move back still further?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. That is correct.

The CHAIRMAN. Had you taken that place of your own volition when you got into the bus?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. I had. The driver requested that I move to the rear seat and the rear seat has no window; has no armrest and it is not a reclining-type seat, which would have inconvenienced me somewhat.

The CHAIRMAN. I would like to say for the members of the committee, who were not here when Mr. Williams started his testimony, he is a resident of the city of Camden. I know his locality very well—it is one of the nicer localities in our city. Mr. Williams bears an excellent reputation in our city both as a young man and for the service that he has rendered in the military forces, and one who is held in very high regard by all who know him in our city of Camden. . . . .

Mr. HARRIS. Is this the first time you have ever had any difficulty with reference to this problem?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. Yes; it is. I had a car of my own and this is the first time I had ever ridden a bus, that I remember.

Mr. HARRIS. You mean in the South, I suppose?


Mr. HARRIS. Have you tried to ride any bus since then?

Mr. THOMAS WILLIAMS. I cannot remember offhand riding a bus since then in the South. . . .

Source: Amending Interstate Commerce Act (Segregation of Passengers), Hearings before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, May 12–14, 1954. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954, 39–55.