Freedom's Main Line

Learn how activists in Louisville, Kentucky successfully campaigned against segregated streetcars in 1870-71.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Gain a deeper perspective about the role of transportation, like trolleys and buses, during the civil rights movement
  • Analyze how nonviolent protest transformed the United States during the civil rights movement
  • Analyze why ordinary individuals risked their lives to end segregation
  • Make connections between the past and the present
Essential Questions
  • What role did transportation play in the civil rights movement?
  • How did—and do—citizens (both individually and collectively) influence social change?
  • How important was nonviolence in the civil rights movement?


In 1865, four million newly emancipated slaves quickly found that freedom did not mean equality. The Civil War was over, but black men and women would still have to fight hundreds of battles to win the same political, economic and social rights that white Americans enjoyed.

A great number of the battles for social equality would take place on segregated trains, steamships, streetcars and later, buses.

For many African Americans, the daily public humiliation of having to ride in a designated section—or being refused a ride altogether—symbolized the entire system of racial separation, a system that reminded blacks that they were second-class citizens in their own country.

One of the earliest assaults on segregated transit in the South occurred in Louisville, Kentucky in 1870-71. There, the city's black community organized a successful protest that relied on non-violent direct action, a tactic that would give shape to the modern civil rights movement nearly a century later.


Additional Resources



black codes [ blak kohds ] (noun) State laws passed after the civil war to limit the freedom of African Americans

boycottboi-kot ] (noun) a form of protest consisting in the refusal to have dealings with a person, business or organization

nonviolent direct action [ non-vahy-uh-luhnt dih-rek ak-shuhn ] (noun) an effort to achieve change by the most immediately effective peaceful means, such as a boycott

emancipation [ ih-man-suh-pey-shuhn ] (noun) freedom from enslavement

Jim Crow (noun) The system of laws and practices that discriminated against African Americans between the Civil War and the civil rights movement

Reconstruction [ ree-kuhn-struhk-shuhn ] (noun) The period from 1865 to 1877 when the federal government attempted to solve the political, social and economic problems arising from the readmission of the 11 Confederate states into the Union

ride-in [ rahyd in ] (noun) A protest in which passengers occupy a mode of public transit in violation of restrictive policies

segregatedseg-ri-gey-tid ] (verb) Separated by race



I. Discussion Questions

Answers will vary. The following are basic points that may be covered. 

1. Describe the racial policies of Louisville's streetcar companies in 1870.

(Note: White men and women could ride any trolleys they chose. Black women were allowed to ride but were forced to take the rear seats on some lines. Black men were usually permitted to ride only on the small front platform with the driver. On some lines, they couldn't ride at all.)

2. What character traits are revealed in the actions of the following people: the Fox brothers and Horace Pearce? Col. John H. Ward? Carey Duncan?

(Note: The decision by Robert and Samuel Fox and Horace Pearce—all African Americans—to board the trolley demonstrated their belief in equality and their willingness to risk their own safety to defy an unfair law. By defending the three men in court, Col. Ward showed his courage to resist peer pressure from fellow white citizens to keep black people down. By refusing to give up his seat on the streetcar despite taunts and threats from white youths, black teenager Carey Duncan revealed his determination to make a better future for himself and his peers. By not fighting back when the gang began to beat him, he showed the physical courage to resist intimidation.)

3. What effect did the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson have on racial segregation in the South?

(Note: The decision specifically affirmed the right of passenger train companies to maintain "separate but equal" cars for black and white riders. More broadly, the ruling preserved racial segregation in many areas of public life. The decision was not challenged successfully until 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. In that case involving segregated schools, the court ruled that the "separate but equal" status was both impossible to achieve and undesirable in a democracy.)

4. What distinguished the Louisville streetcar boycotts from similar protests in other cities?

(Note: In many other cities where protests occurred and barriers were toppled, Jim Crow laws and practices soon restored segregation. Only in Louisville were African Americans successful in keeping the city streetcars open to all passengers.)


II. Writing

1. According to his epitaph, Thaddeus Stevens requested to be buried in a racially integrated cemetery in order to "illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life—equality of man before his Creator." Write your own "epitaph," expressing an idea or trait for which you would like to be remembered.

2. Using John Hope's speech in "Be Dissatisfied" as a model, write an essay in which you urge your audience to accept a call to action on an issue of importance and meaning to you. 

3. Imagine that you are Carey Duncan, an African American teenager who took part in the Louisville ride-ins. Write a letter to the editor of The Louisville Messenger describing your reasons for participating, your experiences during the protest and your hopes and dreams for the community.


III. Projects

1. Research online the concept of nonviolent resistance. What are some synonyms for the term? How did Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela use nonviolent resistance? Create a timeline on which you locate and illustrate major events in the history of this form of peaceful protest. 

2. Movements for social change often use theme songs or anthems to unite participants and express their goals. Choose a familiar tune—or compose a new one—and write the lyrics to a theme song for the Louisville ride-ins. Create a handout that includes lyrics, music and a brief synopsis of the protest. Perform your song for the class.

3. Interview an official with the public transportation system in your town or city. What services does the system provide? What areas of the city does the service reach and what is the demographic profile of the riders? Was the system ever segregated? If so, how and why did that change? What problems is the system currently facing? What does this information tell you about your community? Design a poster reflecting what you learned from the interview.

4. Using the stories that you have read, combined with online research, create a 30-minute Readers' Theatre presentation highlighting the role of transportation in the civil rights struggle. Ideas might include the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Pullman Porters' strike, the Louisville ride-ins, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Freedom Riders. Find or create simple, historically appropriate costumes for each character. Present your readings to other classes in your school.

5. You have been asked to design a mural entitled "Journey to Justice" for the National Museum of Transportation. In teams of three or four, research people who were "movers" for equal access to transportation, such as Elizabeth Jennings, the Fox Brothers, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and others. Incorporate historical and contemporary images into your design. Hold a design fair to exhibit and explain the teams' mural proposals. Present your designs to local transportation officials for possible display or execution at public facilities such as train stations, bus shelters or libraries.

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