The Richmond Planet serves as an example for civil rights acts to come a half century later in its battle against the streetcar. In April of 1904, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that would allow streetcar companies to decide whether or not to segregate seating. The Virginia Passenger and Power Company of Richmond made the decision to proceed and they separated the cars after forty years of integrated riding. Their actions sparked a boycott that revolutionized the response of a race when met with opposition and hatred.
The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that allowed transportation companies to segregate through local choice. The Virginia Passenger and Power Company participated in this “optional discrimination” even though “it is not required to do this by any law enacted by the legislature of Virginia.” The “separation of white and colored people on its streetcars has caused intense feeling among the colored people,” the Richmond Planet declared, claiming disbelief “that such exhibitions of rank race prejudice would [have] take[n] place here.” John Mitchell argued that there was no place where there “is less friction on the street-cars than in this city.”
Mitchell placed blame upon the “Negro haters,” for “it is the evident intention of the Negro-haters” to “foster bad feeling between the races” and to force black people to act out against the law in order prove “their desire and purpose is to override the law.” The “Negro-haters” were a group of white people who did not encompass all of white society but inflamed race relations. Streetcar segregation marked a new level of separation in the Jim crow era, one of the few first laws to segregate and discriminate black people, a continuation of the empowerment of one race and the discrimination against another.
The “Negro haters” law was implemented by the conductors of the streetcars. One judge declared “you'll see me moving when the conductor says move'' even though the judge once was thought to be “the czar of the town.” The conductors held more power on the streetcars than anyone in the community and this power was what Mitchell feared the most. John Mitchell, the editor of a successful black newspaper, leader and head community member of black Richmond, used his platform to provoke a movement to stimulate change.
Leading up to 1904, Mitchell’s optimistic approach, high expectations, and hopeful outlook dissolved as he realized that not everything was under his control. Mitchell switched focus from broader issues such as lynchings and discrimination as a whole to more focused issues he could influence. The “Streetcar Situation” marked one of the first cases where Mitchell was able to control and provoke substantial results. In order to affect the streetcar directly but also sustain the image of black people “as a well-bred, but long-suffering people,” Mitchell urged a peaceful boycott. He argued that if the “entire colored population or at least ninety percent” decided to walk instead of ride for a year “the agony produced on the white man’s nerve centre, which is his pocket, would tend to cause an amelioration of our condition.” Mitchell wrote three or four articles in every issue urging the community to come together and walk to work instead of riding the car. If the black people went on the street car they should cause no trouble but instead conduct themselves in a respectable manner that would best represent the race as a whole. He told readers that “walking is good now” and to “stay off the street-cars.” The boycott “by the colored people will last as long as the streetcar law lasts, if forever.” Mitchell argued that the law was “absolutely unnecessary and will only prove an inconvenience to the white people who are deprived of two seats and the street railroad company who will lose the entire revenue they used to receive from the colored people.”
The “Negro haters’” objective may have been to only discriminate against the black citizens but the “Jim Crow” streetcar law affected both races. “It is a noticeable fact that white people are objecting to the innovation and some walk rather than submit to it.” All arrests, he claimed, had been that of the white race as white people argued with conductors. The first arrest of the Jim Crow Street Car was a white carpenter, John B. Meyers, who sat in the back of the colored section only to be asked to move at one of the next stops by the conductor of the car. Meyers refused and was arrested. The only black arrest came when one black lady, visiting from New York, exclaimed “to hell with Jim Crow laws” and was arrested and fined twenty dollars. Mitchell urged black people to “use their big feet the Lord blessed them with and walk” and if they did ride to cause no trouble. The “streetcar situation” provided an opportunity for black people to respond to their discrimination in a respectable way which does not demean them.
The “Negro Haters” intent on fostering bad feeling and to diminish the black race was only met with a strong opposition of the black population. Instead of cracking under discrimination, the black citizens of Richmond were able to form a community. The True Reformers halls were often “packed with colored people” who “lined the aisles and stairways” just to attend mass meetings held to make “a dignified and conservative protest against the action of the Virginia Passenger and Power Company.” These packed meetings were called to order by John Mitchel who advised that the “best place for the colored people was the sidewalk and he advised all of them to walk and avoid trouble.” . The meetings that organized the protest were just one of the forms of the community banning together to end segregated streetcars. Mitchell called upon the community to offer other modes of transportation for the black folk instead of walking and riding the streetcar. The “ colored People now walk to work others “get a lift” on drays, teamsters and furniture wagons, etc and the trip costs them nothing.” Many community members offered free horse pulled wagon rides for the folks who lived far from work or had trouble walking In November the boycott began to take a toll on the streetcar business with “The Metropolitan Trust Company of New York has filed a petition asking permission of the United States Circuit Court to sue the Receivers of the Virginia Passenger and Power Company” due to its low income and decrease use of cars in the company.
In July of 1904, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company filed for bankruptcy and in December the streetcar company was sold to auction. Mitchell’s boycott of walking instead of riding met with a reward. The situation of the streetcar allowed the community of the Richmond Planet and the black community to rally around a cause that every member could join to prove that their race was respectable in its long-suffering but that it would prevail.
Unfortunately, in 1906 the Virginia Assembly passed stricter laws that again enacted segregation on a more extreme level and the “Jim crow law” was reinstated. While the streetcar situation may have eventually ended in defeat, the triumph of the streetcar boycott was an exemplary movement for more movements to come such as the famous Montgomery bus boycott where black citizens of Montgomery were encouraged “to stay home from work or school, take a cab or walk to work” just as Mitchell head done fifty years before. John Mitchell created a movement and unified a community of people that had been discriminated against for their entire lives and showed them the ability to change that fate. He created a community for hope in 1904 and created hopes for those in decades to follow.