The United States holds as its most fundamental truth that all men are created equal, and while it hasn’t always lived up to this, it has never stopped working toward the ideals enshrined in its founding documents. And in one poignant example, the physical copies of those documents themselves were the catalyst for this.
This is the Forgotten History of the Freedom Train.
The nation was riding high, a year removed from its resounding victory in World War II, a generation of young men were getting back to work, starting families, and living the American dream.
But one man, Attorney General Tom Clark, was worried that in their zest for the good life, Americans were taking the freedoms that allowed such a life for granted. He wanted to restore a sense of civic pride and rekindle the fire of patriotism that had burned so brightly during the war.
And what, he figured, could do that more than the documents that made America itself? He proposed a traveling exhibit featuring the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They would tour the country in a locomotive painted red, white and blue that Clark dubbed “The Freedom Train.”
The train would stop in more than 300 cities in every one of the 48 states over the course of its several-year journey, starting, fittingly, in Philadelphia on September 17, 1947. Massive crowds showed up at every stop, clamoring for a glimpse at the most complete collection of America’s dedication to freedom ever assembled.
But as the Freedom Train crisscrossed the Northeast and Upper Midwest, there was concern about its stops in the segregated South. Would black residents be allowed to share in the celebration of liberty or, in a cruel irony, would they be kept from them? In other words, would America’s actions live up to its words? Or would the Freedom Train inadvertently prove that all men aren’t created equal?
The poet Langston Hughes recognized this immediately and wrote a poem entitled “Freedom Train.”
"I hope their ain't no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train," he lamented. "No back door entrance to the Freedom Train, No sign FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train, No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train."
Hughes’ fears were confirmed when the Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee confirmed that access to the Freedom Train would be segregated, with black audiences only permitted to attend after hours.
In Birmingham, Alabama, black and white visitors to the train would have to wait in separate lines and wouldn’t be allowed to visit the same cars at the same time.
The train’s operators had a decision to make; would they allow segregated access to the very documents that guarantee freedom and equality for all or would they take a stand for the ideals enshrined in them?
They chose the latter.
Organizers informed leaders in Memphis and Birmingham that the Freedom Train would not stop in their cities if they insisted on segregated access in any form. But those leaders stood firm.
"Our segregation law is for the protection of the white and black races in the city, and for the prevention of disorders," said Bimingham Sheriff Bull Connor. "It is not a mantle to be set aside at the instance of this or that visitor to the city. If those in charge of the Freedom Train should see fit to bring it to Birmingham, they will be welcomed cordially, but cannot expect that either they or visitors to the Freedom Train will be exempt from our laws.
The gauntlet was laid down, and the Freedom Train didn’t blink…and it didn’t stop. Organizers concluded that if the Declaration of Independence and Constitution onboard were to mean anything, they meant standing up to the legalized inequality of the segregation and refusing to bow to it.
They informed both Memphis and Birmingham that they would not stop there or in any other city that would enforce segregation in any way at the at any of the train’s visits. No other city in the south dared to.
Civil rights activists were overjoyed, as the Freedom Train had struck a significant blow against segregation. With one decision, its organizers proved that the Declaration and Constitution were more than just a traveling museum exhibit or empty words on a page; they were the essence of freedom and equality itself—and those ideals would be upheld and defended forever.