Re-thinking Black (Im)mobility

Jim Peppler, “‘Little Russ’ Carlton riding a bicycle on a dirt road in Newtown,” Jim Peppler Southern Courier photograph collection. Alabama Dept. of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama (ADAH).

On January 10, 2022, a group of young mostly Black and Latinx cyclists known as Everyones Rideout took over a portion of Interstate 80 in Berkeley. By briefly cycling on the I-80, Everyones Rideout made visible the ways huge swaths of public land have been turned over to the logic of the car, while rendering cyclists, pedestrians, and other citizens casualties of the “exceptionally American problem” of car violence. Everyones Rideout is dedicated to “preserving the bike life and Oakland culture we grew up with” and in doing so, forces us to confront the ways in which youth cycling culture is a dynamic expression of freedom and independence that challenges the automotive industry’s predatory relationship with Black Americans.

The modern bicycle—wheels of equal size, diamond frame—was and is one of the most significant technologies of personal mobility; but in the postwar American imagination, it was pushed into adolescence and onto college campuses. The mobility it afforded, however, was no less revolutionary. The inability to see cyclists—young and old; past and present—in favor of mass automobility can often obscure the multiplicity of human movement in the twentieth century. Even at the height of the Civil Rights Movement it took imagination to see a Black community in motion.

In August 1967, the Southern Courier published a photo-exposé on Newtown, a Black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. Located on pages 5 and 6, the photographs are sandwiched between headlines reporting on the ongoing Civil Rights Movement: “Negroes, Klansmen Rally,” “King: ‘I’m Sticking with Love,’” and “Two Negro Women Elected to Jacksonville City Council.” Amongst these reports of hope and fear, the words and photographs of Jim Peppler presented an image of Newtown that dwelled on the physical stasis of Black poverty. Of the eighteen photographs reproduced in the paper, eight focus on sitting subjects, three on small gatherings, two on children, a woman behind a screened door, a couple in which the woman out of all the photographs is the only one smiling, and, in the most striking image of immobility, a dead dog in the middle of a road surrounded by children. The one image that suggests any sort of mobility is a photograph of two cars stopped waiting for a passing train.

The short text that accompanied the photographs explained the immobilization of Newtown’s Black residents. Entitled “‘Newtown’ – – A Community Apart,” the text notes that the area is “isolated by both geography and reputation from the rest of Montgomery.” The local railroad’s intersection of North Decatur Street served as a physical point of demarcation: when Decatur crossed the tracks, the “asphalt ends and Newtown begins.” Unpaved roads met at intersections with no stop signs, “it’s everyone for himself. ‘They’re using this place as a dragstrip’.” A gravel quarry, full of water, known as “The Big Ditch” served as the community pool in which four children had drowned in the previous two summers. The inability to easily leave or move safely through Newtown meant that the neighborhood and its residents gained a reputation as “them Newtown people” separate from the rest of Montgomery. Immobility was central to the placemaking of Newtown.1

Founded in Montgomery in 1965 by two Harvard journalism students and Freedom Summer veterans, the Southern Courier aimed to fill a void in the coverage of the Civil Rights Movement by providing unfiltered access to the Black freedom struggle in the South. That same year, Pennsylvania native Jim Peppler joined the newspaper as its principal photographer and photo editor for most of its three-year run. Peppler’s work as a photojournalist for the Courier helped document and advance the Black freedom struggle in Alabama. In his photo-essay on Newtown, Peppler tells a story of Black poverty and its desperate need for amelioration.

At the same time, in the Courier’s representation of poverty and in its language of (im)mobility, the paper confirms an observation made by numerous scholars that movement and mobility produce race—“them Newtown people”—and the ways in which the Black experience of the United States has been shaped by the practices and enforcement of immobilities—“a community apart.”2 By reproducing images of Black immobility, the Southern Courier’s exposé served to entrench a view of Black stasis.

James Peppler, “Two young boys sitting on a bicycle on a dirt road in Newtown” Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection, ADAH.

The photographs contained in Peppler’s archive, however, reveal a different image of Newtown. One that offers an alternative to the narrative that made it in to print. These previously unseen images tell us a lot about the intersections of technology, mobility, and Black freedom at the highpoint of the mid-century civil rights movement. No more so than in the photographs of the youthful joy in riding a bicycle.

For the children of Newtown, the bicycle clearly represented freedom and independence. Although the published photo-essay features just one person smiling, the children on bicycles found in the archive make clear a youthful confidence. Despite the physical stasis of a community apart and its entrenched poverty, the bicycle remained a machine that elicited pleasure and joy from its riders. This narrative did not fit with the Newtown presented in the Southern Courier.

Peppler’s archival images reveal, then, both the invisibility of the bicycle at mid-century but also its radical challenge to Black immobility.

To be clear, this is not meant to romanticize nor to deny the crushing poverty and racism faced by children in places like Newtown and across the nation. At the same time, we can recognize that in these unpublished photos there is a joy and also perhaps, in the words of geographers Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood, a “countermobility” of antiracism at work.

There’s another photo in Peppler’s archive that stands apart and connects directly to Everyones Rideout’s radical reorienting of public space around the pleasure of cycling. It comes from the Christmas holiday the year before the Newtown exposé. Each year during Christmas, the city of Montgomery took a step that even today seems like a radical reallocation of public space and one that remains viscerally contested in cities around the world. During the winter holidays the city closed a forty-one-block area to cars so that children could safely play in the streets. In this instance, the photograph speaks for itself.

Peppler, “Little girl on a bicycle in the street…” Jim Peppler Southern Courier photograph collection. ADAH.

Re-examining the Southern Courier’s coverage of Newtown and Peppler’s archive from a mobility perspective reveals the ways movement and stasis produced multiple narratives within the civil rights movement. The movement had, after all, started on a bus in Montgomery. If the adults of Newtown seemed entrapped by an immovable poverty, their children found some freedom and joy on a bicycle. When we view the dusty unpaved roads of Newtown we are witness to youthful exploration and self-discovery, happiness and play, standing in stark contrast to the published photographs. By looking for multiple practices of mobility—such as cycling—we can better uncover the limits, possibilities, and joy of movement in the United States.

  1. Jim Peppler, “‘Newtown’ – – A Community Apart,” The Southern Courier 3, no. 35 (August 26-27, 1967), 5-6.
  2. Paul Gilroy, Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood “Mobility as Antiracism Work: The ‘Hard Driving’ of NASCAR’s Wendell Scott,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 3 (2016); Tim Cresswell, “Black Moves: Moments in the History of African-American Masculine Mobilities,” Transfers 6, no. 1 (March 2016); and Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
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Nathan Cardon

Nathan Cardon is an associate professor of U.S. history at the University of Birmingham, England. He is the author of A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World’s Fairs (Oxford, 2018). He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press entitled The World Awheel: Americans in the First Global Bicycle Age. Recent publications related to this project include “Global Mass Culture, Mobile Subjectivities, and the Southern Landscape: The Bicycle in the New South, 1887-1920” (Journal of American Studies, 2022); and “Cycling on the Color Line: Race, Technology, and Bicycle Mobilities in the Early Jim Crow South, 1887-1905” (Technology & Culture, 2021).

Comments on “Re-thinking Black (Im)mobility

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    As a scholar of African American history *and* a daily bicycle commuter, I am consistently disappointed by the erasure of Black bicycling in both our understanding of history and in too many contemporary “bike culture” settings. Thank you, Nathan Cardon, for thwarting these erasures. I am looking forward to reading more of your work (though admittedly I will not do so while I am riding my bike).

    In the meantime, I will share this with the local bike nerd community here in Portland, Oregon.

    Roll on,
    Lois Leveen she/her

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