Bicycling toward justice
By the Rev. G. Travis Norvell
I arrived in Atlanta with time to explore the Sweet Auburn Historic District before the opening session of the New Baptist Covenant Summit on Racial Justice and Reconciliation. I attended as a representative of the American Baptist Taskforce on Race and Race-Based Violence seeking to learn, be inspired and challenged. As I stepped off the streetcar at the King Historic District stop, I looked up the street at Ebenezer Baptist Church and noticed the familiar 4-foot-wide, white-striped bike lanes.
The presence of bike lanes made me wonder if there could be a link between bicycling and the Civil Rights Movement. The linkage seemed far-fetched at first, but as I watched people of all backgrounds bike past the churches and home of the King family, I began to think otherwise.
Take a moment and recall the transit images and landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement: Plessy v. Ferguson, the ruling that gave us the language of “separate but equal,” was a case about who could and who could not ride on passenger rail cars. Or picture the charred remains of the bombed Freedom Riders Trailways bus. Or picture Rosa Parks with her purse in her lap, refusing to give up her seat on National City Lines Bus №2857. Or picture the marchers locked arm-in-arm walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Each revolved around transit issues. Movement — how African-Americans got from point A to point B — was central to the Movement.
I knew transit issues were central to the Civil Rights Movement, but I had not thought of bicycling as part of the movement. Then during an Internet search, I discovered a picture of African-Americans on bicycles passing empty buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Bike lanes on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street in Atlanta were placed in the most appropriate streets.
In most conversations, bicycling is viewed, promoted and dominated by white voices. But when white voices look at the historical experience of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they realize how much the African-American community has to teach.
On the morning of Dec. 5, 1954, the boycott began when African-Americans, inspired by the Baton Rouge, La., bus boycott, refused to take the bus because of Jim Crow-era transit laws. For 381 days, the African-American community carpooled, took taxis, rode bicycles, walked and even drove horse and buggy to work and for errands. Decades before there were bike lanes, before the Nordic nations embraced bicycling, before Silicon Valley entrepreneurs developed ride-sharing apps, before there were any pedestrian-advisory alliances, the African-American community in Montgomery, Ala., had already created what many transit planners can only imagine in their dreams!
The Montgomery African-American community protested, resisted, organized and pressured local and national elected officials, but they also created an alternative community and reality. Despite daily dehumanization and disenfranchisement, they did not wait for a political party to save them. They, like the early church in Acts, chapter 2, created a new reality by means of protest and alternative transit.
The Civil Rights Movement was an attempt to transport America from a racist nation to the Beloved Community. Monk and author Thomas Merton saw the movement as an opportunity for white America to repent, to experience transformation and reconciliation. Although important laws were passed and progress was made, we, as a nation, are still stuck in the congestion of racism, preventing us from our destination.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a specific and holy moment of the Civil Rights Movement that still has the ability to function as a generative act for the role of the church in environment, public health, economics and race relations. American Baptists have the power and ability to create an alternative reality as a majority-minority denomination. What if we took up bicycling as a means to get to know those in the neighborhoods and communities we serve?
Anthony Taylor, co-founder of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club, a bicycling club geared to African-Americans in Minnesota, once said, “When people [of color] don’t have relationships with other people involved in biking, they aren’t likely to start biking, and then all of the bike infrastructure in the world would be without value to them.” We could incorporate bicycling as a means for social justice, evangelism and community ministry.
In 2015, the Montgomery Bicycle Association organized a ride from Selma to Montgomery to mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The ride brought together people from Alabama and around the country. At the end of the ride, Bruce, who is white, was standing at the finish on the state capitol building steps next to Ira, who is black. Ira turned to Bruce and said, “When I was a boy, the idea of doing this together, blacks and white, was unthinkable.”
At that moment, Bruce realized that cycling bridges gaps. All kinds of people like riding a bicycle. He realized that if he and Ira could create community on the bike, they might maintain it off the bike as well, which they have. By bicycling, you may discover or start biking groups like Major Taylor Bicycling Club or Black Women Bike groups in cities like Houston and Nashville or Civil Bikes in Atlanta or Tamales y Bicicletas in Minneapolis.
My wife, Lori, frequently chides me with “You think bicycling is the answer to every question.” I do not think just by putting more people on bicycles all of our problems will disappear, but I do think bicycles can help. Riding a bike can create small joys that can lead to bigger joys. Riding a bike can create courage, leading to greater acts of courage. And, in the Christian community living at the nexus of racial, economic, gender and environmental justice, joy and courage are in desperate need.
The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
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The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.