Given that cars have been at the heart of American culture in the twentieth century, many famous people have cameos in POLICING THE OPEN ROAD.

Johnson in his racer. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Johnson in his racer. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Jack Johnson

In 1910, the legendary black boxer Jack Johnson challenged the top-ranked driver Barney Oldfield to a race. He had already defeated the “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries (and Oldfield’s friend) in the fight of the century. The New York Times reported his traffic violations to suggest that he was a reckless driver and a public threat.

Then in 1913, Johnson was arrested twice and ultimately convicted of violating the Mann Act for transporting—presumably driving—a white woman, a former lover, across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He received a presidential pardon in 2018.


Martin luther king jr.

At midcentury, many civil rights activists were harassed with pretextual arrests for fabricated or trivial traffic violations. Martin Luther King Jr. himself was arrested numerous times by the Montgomery, Alabama police, and one of those arrests was for allegedly speeding. The New York Times published a full-page ad describing the struggles of civil rights activists, including King, and the police abuse they suffered. One of the police leaders, L. B. Sullivan, sued the New York Times for libel, and the case ended with a landmark Supreme Court opinion on the freedom of the press. Sullivan received his police training at Northwestern University’s Traffic Safety Institute, a nationally-recognized school for the police.