A Montgomery, Alabama ordinance compelled black residents to take seats apart from whites on public buses. At the time, the "separate but equal" standard applied, but the actual separation practiced by the Montgomery City Lines was hardly equal. Montgomery bus operators were supposed to separate their buses into two sections: whites up front and blacks in back. As more whites boarded, the white section was supposed to extend toward the back. On paper, the bus company's policy was that the middle of the bus became the limit if all the seats farther back were occupied. Nevertheless, that was not the everyday reality.
Blacks who tried to vote were threatened, beaten, and killed. Their families were also harmed. Sometimes their homes were burned down. Often, they lost their jobs or were thrown off their farms. Whites used violence to intimidate blacks and prevent them from even thinking about voting. Still, some blacks passed the requirements to vote and took the risk. Some whites used violence to punish those “uppity” people and show other blacks what would happen to them if they voted. African Americans were not allowed to vote in the Democratic primary elections. White Democrats said the Democratic Party was a “club” and did not allow black members. So blacks could not vote in the only elections that mattered.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression (1929-39) was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world. In the United States, the Great Depression began soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed. Though the relief and reform measures put into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped lessen the worst effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the economy would not fully turn around until after 1939, when World War II kicked American industry into high gear. This is why so many of the characters in Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry are poor, and provides an account of how blacks fared during the Great Depression. But the characters in the novel aren't just poor because of the Depression. They're also poor because of racial inequalities in America, and particularly in the south.