On a First-Class Rail Carriage

The train trip began quiet enough. The dapper young lawyer showed his first-class ticket to the conductor who validated it.

The lawyer took his seat.

In 1893, segregation in South Africa was not only in practice, but it was also ingrained in the mentality of the minority white population. As difficult as it may be for some to believe today, at that time, Black South Africans were not simply treated as inferior people; they were considered sub-human. All aspects of both public and private life were segregated.

So was this train.

The first-class section of the train was usually occupied by white business types and white “gentlemen.” They not only did not want to be around the Blacks of the country, but they also did not care for the white lower classes, either.

The young lawyer had purchased his ticket for the first-class coach because, as an attorney, he could afford the ticket and he enjoyed the space and comfort it provided. When he took his seat in his neatly pressed suit and perfectly tied cravat, the young man sat back to read his newspaper while the journey continued. He didn’t notice the man opposite him begin to frown at him on the other side of the paper.

A few moments later, the man got up and found a conductor. “I want him removed from the coach,” the man told the conductor, motioning to the young lawyer. “Sir,” the man replied, “he has a ticket. He is not from South Africa.” But, the man persisted, and he threatened the conductor’s job if he didn’t remove the lawyer from the coach. The conductor reluctantly relented.

He entered the train car and cleared his throat uncomfortably. The lawyer put down his paper. “May I help you?” the lawyer said. “Sir,” the conductor began, “it seems that your presence has made the other passengers…uncomfortable. I am asking you to move to the second-class compartment.” The lawyer was incredulous. He produced his ticket again and insisted that he had done nothing wrong. “I realize that, sir,” the conductor explained, “but I must insist that you remove yourself from this coach.” The young lawyer was shocked at such behavior, but he refused to move. “Your railway sold me a first-class ticket. I will hold them to their contract,” he said.

The conductor turned to the man who had complained. The man narrowed his eyes and said, “If he refuses to move, you must do your duty.” The conductor assessed the situation and made the decision that would change the course of history. At the next stop, Pietermaritzburg, he had the young lawyer forcibly removed from the train.  

That cold night, the lawyer shivered in quiet anger on a bench at the station until another train came along the next day. Even though he was not a Black South African, this incident played a major part in his decision to create his doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience with which he would change the world.

“I was born in India,” Gandhi once said, “but I was made in South Africa.”

One thought on “On a First-Class Rail Carriage

  1. Charles – I’m really enjoying reading these. You’ve combined a lifetime of historical studies with a good mind for unanticipated twists. O. Henry would be proud. I hope things are going well for you in Europe. Drop me an email sometime if you get the chance; it would be fun to catch up. – Daniel


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