'Driving While Black' shows history of US Black motorists

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This cover image released by Liveright/W.W. Norton shows "Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights" by Gretchen Sorin. The book examines how the automobile opened the road to civil rights for blacks in the U.S. (Liveright/W.W. Norton via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A new film examines the history of African Americans driving on the road from the Great Depression to the height of the Civil Rights movement.

“Driving While Black,” which airs this week on most PBS stations in the U.S., shows how the automobile liberated African Americans to move around the country while still navigating segregation and violence. While the car allowed African Americans to avoid segregated trains and buses throughout the American South, it also put them in danger while traveling through towns across the U.S. that barred Blacks after dark.

The car forced them to confront segregation and discrimination along such romanticized pathways, like Route 66 — an iconic highway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles that passed through Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico.

“Nothing is more American than the dream of mobility, which has throughout our history been accompanied by the reality of racism,” director Ric Burns said.

The film was inspired by Gretchen Sorin's 2020 book, “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” The book was a riveting story on how the automobile opened up opportunities for blacks in the U.S.

Travel guides presented a modern-day Underground Railroad to show black travelers which hotels and restaurants would serve them. The free movement opened the window to migration across the land and away from Jim Crow, ushering in the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The project is one of many recent works examining travel by people of color despite discrimination and threats of racial violence.

Candacy Taylor’s “Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America,” released last year, looks at how the Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans, helped black travelers navigate segregation and create a traveling network.

The new HBO dramatic series, “Lovecraft Country,” centers around a young African American veteran who travels across the segregated 1950s U.S. in search of his missing father.