Robert Fox (activist)

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Robert Fox sparked a civil rights battle in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 19th century.

Activism career[edit]

In January 1871, Robert Fox boarded a streetcar, dropped his money into the fare box and sat down in the white section of the car. Ordered to move, he refused; the driver then threw him off the car. Shortly after, Fox filed a charge of assault and battery against the streetcar company in federal court, claiming that separate seating policies based on race were unlawful and the driver's actions were therefore improper. A jury found the company rules to be invalid and awarded damages of $15 to Fox.

After lawsuit[edit]

The company defied the jury's finding and continued racially segregated seating. Louisville black leaders decided to launch a full-scale "ride-in." At 7 P.M. on May 12, a young African-American boy boarded a streetcar, walked past the driver and took a seat among the white passengers. The driver, under new company regulations, did not attempt to throw him off, but simply stopped the car, lit a cigar and refused to proceed until the black youth moved to "his place." While the governor, the Louisville chief of police and other prominent citizens looked on from the sidewalks, a large crowd that included an increasingly noisy mob of jeering white teen-agers gathered around the streetcar.

Ride ins[edit]

Before long, there were shouts of "Put him out!" "Hit him!" "Kick him!" "Hang him!" Several white youths climbed into the car and began yelling insults in the face of the young black rider. He refused to answer—or to move. The youths dragged him from his seat, pulled him off the car and began to beat him. Only when the youth started to defend himself did the city police intervene; they arrested him for disturbing the peace and took him to jail.

This time the trial was held in Louisville city court. The youth was fined and the judge delivered a warning to Louisville blacks that further ride-ins would be punished.

After second trial[edit]

In the following days, streetcar after streetcar was boarded by African-Americans who took seats in the white section. Now the drivers got off the cars entirely. On several occasions, black passengers drove the cars themselves, to the sound of cheers from black spectators. Then violence erupted. Bands of white youths and men began to throw black riders off the cars; windows were broken, cars were overturned and for a time a general race riot threatened.

By this time, newspapers across the country were carrying reports of the conflict, and many editorials denounced the seating regulations. In Louisville, federal marshals and the United States Attorney backed the rights of the Black riders and stated that federal court action would be taken if necessary. There were even rumors that President Ulysses Grant might send troops.

Under these threats, the streetcar company capitulated. Soon, all the city transit companies declared that "it was useless to try to resist or evade the enforcement by the United States authorities of the claim of Blacks to ride in the cars." To "avoid serious collisions," the company would thereafter allow all passengers to sit where they chose. Although a few disturbances took place in the following months, mixed seating became a common practice.

See also[edit]