NEWS BLOG (WSAU) One of my favorite train rides is The Crescent, from New York to New Orleans. Leaving New York in the late morning, by dusk you're traveling through North Carolina. You'll see the Atlanta skyline at night. Sunrise the next morning finds you rolling through the genteel south of Alabama and Mississippi before a six-mile causeway trip across Lake Pontchartrain arriving in the Big Easy. Before airplanes took over, The Crescent was the main link between the Northeast and the South.
But The Crescent has an ugly history. The train itself was operated by the Southern Railroad, and was operating as a Jim Crow train into the 1950s. Blacks were not allowed use The Crescent's sleeping cars. Its dining car was segregated. South of Richmond the train carried 'negro coaches' -- smaller, dirty, sometimes non-air conditioned cars for African-American passengers.
Of course, that's nearly 50 years in the past. Federal law and business practices have long made the sleeping cars and diners available to everyone. (An interesting side-note: it was a private business, The Pennsylvania Railroad, that de-segregated the Crescent before federal civil rights laws took effect. The Pennsy, on who's rails the train ran between New York and Washington, refused to enforce segregation rules while the train was on its property, and the Southern Railroad eventually gave up trying to re-seat passengers south of the Mason-Dixon line.)
But here is a true story from one of my trips on The Crescent from 1998. I was traveling alone, bound for New Orleans. Railroad tradition is that passengers travelling alone share a table in the dining car so people don't have to wait as long for their food. The man in front of me in line was Clyde, who boarded in Meridian, Mississippi. He whispered in the ear of the maitre'd, "Don't sit me with no darkies." Clyde was seated at my table instead. "Where ya goin', young man?" he asked me. And he offered his opinion of New Orleans: "Half the people who live there belong back in the jungle, where they came from."
On this Martin Luther King Day, there are lessons to be learned from a train ride from a decade ago. Our government has eliminated racism from our public code. And we're been effective at fighting bigotry through the law. But there is still a battle for equality in the human heart, and that fight isn't over yet.