How one guy became an activist

Fifty years ago, I was editing an early version of what would become known as the underground press. But I was a writer, not an activist, until something happened. . .

Sam Smith, The Idler, 1966 – Monday January 24th was the day that Washington thumbed it nose at 0. Roy Chalk. There is a long list of grievances against Mr. Chalk a Washingtonian could compile, but it is enough here to mention that Mr.  Chalk is head of the D. C. Transit System and that Mr. Chalk, on the day in question, was in the midst of petitioning the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission for a fare increase from twenty-five cents to thirty cents. On the morning of the 24th, about 7 a.m., my alarm went off, but I didn’t hear it.  About twenty minutes to eight I awoke and remembered the promise I had made to myself to take part in the bus boycott that day. I don’t like demonstrating, probably for the same reason I don’t like ringing door-bells during a campaign, being on committees, or attending civic meetings. The theory of democracy. I concluded long ago, is fine: the practice of it is often a pain in the neck.

Still, thirty cents is a lot of money to pay for a bus ride. It’s more than most public transit riders in the country pay. John Lindsay had only recently emerged from a bruising fight with New York transit workers; one of the major issues had been maintenance of a fifteen cent fare. It seemed to many Washingtonians that Mr. Chalk and his company were making enough money already and that, in any event, thirty cents was too much to demand of thousands who rely upon bus transportation for the simple reason that there is nothing cheaper.

So I hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to 6th and H Sts. NE, one of the assembly points established for volunteer drivers providing free car rides during the boycott. There a boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle aged and rather fat lady. A bus drove by and it was empty. “They’re all empty,” the lady said. It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered whether she was right. As we drove west along H. St., I asked one of the students, “Has there been a lot of .talk about the boycott at your school?”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been hearing about it on us teenager’s favorite radio station.” “WOL?” “Yeah man, soul radio.” A bus passed us with two passengers in it. “That’s why I’ve got my transistor,” the fat lady said, and she showed me the portable radio she grasped under a purse and a shopping bag with a green floral design on it. The radio stations, particularly the Negro ones, were playing up the boycott. This was important since the daily papers had not been overly generous with their coverage. If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent proposed fare increase would cost them twenty cents a day. That’s the price of a loaf of bread. Over the course of the year it would probably cost them as much as they spent in groceries during a month. Nickels add up. I let off my passengers and headed back to 6th & H.

At Florida & New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning and the boycott was working. With the type of metabolism I’ve got, it’s pretty damn hard for me to feel exhilarated about anything before nine o’clock in the morning. But when I saw those five empty buses it was different. Washington was no longer taking it lying down. The people were being heard from. The city was coming alive. Today it was talking back to O. Roy Chalk. Tomorrow: perhaps the Board of Trade and its opposition to home rule, or slum landlords and their rat-infested basement apartments.

The boycott had been organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the help of numerous civic action organizations including the Coalition of Conscience, a respectable group of mild hell-raisers under the impeccable leadership of a white Episcopal bishop and a Negro minister. SNCC and the other groups charged that the fare hike was discriminatory since it would largely hurt Negro Washington. They scheduled the boycott primarily against nine heavily traveled routes in the mostly Negro northeast section of town. But they also called for city-wide walkout against D. C. Transit.

Washington is a city of considerable apathy in local matters. It has been so long denied home rule that it tends not to believe that the voice of the people matters. It often accepts its fate with a passivity that would surprise more politically conscious communities. When demonstrations and protests are organized, the police are likely to outnumber the demonstrators. Against this background, SNCC’s plan seemed audacious. It was hard enough to get 100 Washingtonians organized. SNCC was trying to mobilize tens of thousands. SNCC proposed that people walk, hitch a ride, or stay home on the davy of the boycott. High school students were urged to organize walk-ins. Cars and volunteer drivers were sought. to pick up riders along the boycotted bus lines. Domestics were asked to tell their employers that they would have to be picked up. SNCC set up a communications headquarters, procured radio equipped cars, and established car assembly points. Handbills were widely distributed, stuck under doors and beneath the windshield wipers of parked cars. The police stationed additional men along the boycott routes.

“It’s beautiful,” the man in the :lightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for 17th St. NW. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there? Let’s try and get them.” I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood. “Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the pair. “You headed down town?” “Yeah, get in.” “Great. It’s working, huh? Great!”

The boycott was like an informal game of touch football on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody was too good at the game but everyone who played seemed to enjoy it just the same. Not everyone played. As I made my way back from downtown, I stopped at several bus stops. “Fight the fare increase: ride for free,” I’d call out. Most of those waiting for the bus were white. Some pretended they didn’t hear me and looked the other way.  Others stared as if I were a little crazy. Still others shook their head in that nervous, embarrassed way people do when they’re refusing to buy pencils from a crippled man on the street corner.

During the day I carried 71 people. Only five of them were white. Three American University students. One man on his way to a job interview in a crummy section of town. And one lady who thought the boycott wasn’t going far enough. I wondered about those who rejected my offer of a free ride. Perhaps they wanted a thirty cent fare. But I doubted that. It was more likely they were apprehensive about anything that upset the routine of life. They were more prosperous than the riders I picked up on Benning Rd.; more successful than the cement-caked laborer who got in on Florida Avenue; and had more reason to be satisfied with life than the Negro maid I carried who commuted regularly halfway across town to a badly paid job.

But when someone offered them a free ride they were afraid: Better not, he might rape me: What’s the gimmick? Must be one of those agitators; hitching rides is dangerous . . . I was glad to get back to Northeast Washington, where people were helping each other out that Monday with- out apprehension. Life hadn’t done as well by them, not by a damn sight, but at least they were not afraid of its novelties. It’s too bad people get scared when they start to succeed. At the delicatessen at 24th and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young, wavy-haired Negro who worked with SNCC greeted me. “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?” “Thanks.” “I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.’’ The SNCC worker went to the pay phone and tried to reach the SNCC office. He couldn’t. “Let’s go out to 34th and Benning.” We got into my car and continued east out to Benning. Lots of empty buses. “We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed.

“You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope.” “Well, I’ll tell you, man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know like if you get in trouble you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”

People were sticking together well that Monday. SNCC estimated D. C. Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Only occasionally did the enthusiasm for the boycott threaten to get out of hand.  One lady said she had heard that kids at her boy’s school were going to wait at the bus stops and beat up any of their schoolmates who got off D.C. Transit vehicles. But there were no reports of this actually happening. More probably, it was just talk.  Like the lady in my car who asked a man we had picked up at a downtown bus stop, “You weren’t waiting for a bus, were you?” “No, I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.” “That’s good.  ’Cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you over the head.” We all laughed and the man reassured her again.

“You know,” the lady in the back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses. Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know you don’t have nothing in this world until you get people together . . . H’ey lookit over there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.” He was. The car was full again and we drove to the northeast end of town together.

None of us knew whether the boycott would have any effect on the fare increase. Two days later, how ever, the transit commission, in a unanimous decision, denied D. C. Transit the hike. The commission’s executive director drily told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor’s equity, rate of return, depreciated value, company rate base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. Fortunately, it all came out the same. But in case it hadn’t the boycott organizers were preparing to renew the protest. It would have been interesting. There is plenty more to protest in Washington. SNCC is already planning a boycott of selected members of the Board of Trade, Washington’s Chamber of Commerce, because of the board’s opposition to home rule. And the passivity of the city’s citizens can no longer be taken for granted. 0. Roy Chalk deserves at least some thanks for that.

After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my apartment talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed, became Marion’s PR guy and, for the first time, joined a movement.

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