By Lola Alapo
After the Civil War ended and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, slave ownership became a crime in the United States. Although millions of African Americans in the South were freed, it would take nearly 100 years for their lack of equality to become a national issue.
The civil rights protests of the 1960s demanded an end to the segregationist laws enacted to maintain white supremacy by preventing people of color from voting, attending good schools, and obtaining meaningful jobs. It was a period when many faced the possibility of death on a daily basis solely due to the color of their skin.
Several famous names are synonymous with this turbulent time in American history—Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall, for example. One name that may not be so familiar is Wendell Scott, the first and only African American driver to win a stock car race at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Scott’s fight to move about the racetrack on his own terms is a microcosm of today’s continued struggle for equal rights,” said Derek Alderman, professor and head of UT’s Department of Geography.
Alderman explored this premise in “Mobility as Antiracism Work: The ‘Hard Driving’ of NASCAR’s Wendell Scott,” an article recently published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. He co-authored the work with Joshua Inwood, a former UT geography professor.
“There is a tendency in America to see the civil rights movement as confined to the past, when in fact it is an ongoing project,” Alderman explained. “The struggle to survive and support oneself is a right. That is something we lose track of when we define civil rights in the formal traditional mainstream way.”
Alderman and Inwood specialize in human geography. They study how the social environment—economics, political structures, and racial power relations—affects the life chances and everyday travel of people within a culture.
“Scott’s racing career can be seen as a historical case study not typically associated with the civil rights movement,” Alderman said. “We examined how the daily actions—particularly the geographic movement—of ordinary working-class people were a means of resistance against racial discrimination.”
Wendell Scott was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1921. The son of an auto mechanic, he dreamed of one day becoming a professional race car driver. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became very adept at repairing and modifying cars.
In 1952 Scott competed in his first race, at a local dirt track in Danville. Within a few weeks he began winning. He spent nine fairly successful seasons racing at the regional level in Virginia before deciding to move up to the NASCAR Grand National Series in 1961.
“Scott faced considerable prejudice in what was otherwise an all-white sport. But relying on his skills as a self-taught mechanic and his ability to improvise, he was able to continue moving on the track and on the streets with freedom,” Alderman said.
His passion to become a winner at the top level of stock car racing forced Scott to employ several unique strategies to succeed.
“Because of the harassment and violence that black motorists often encountered in the segregated South, Scott rarely drove to races alone and he would keep a pistol under his seat in case of emergencies,” Alderman noted. On a few occasions, he took advantage of his lighter skin to pass as a white person and receive help when traveling.
On the track, Scott would avoid wrecking the cars of white drivers who wrecked him to ensure he would not be penalized by the officials and to build sympathy from white fans and drivers who witnessed the discrimination he faced.
He was also known for practicing an effective power slide technique as part of his hard driving on the dirt tracks. “Scott would place the steering wheel against his chest and make violent jerks with the wheel to negotiate tight turns and outmaneuver his opponents,” Alderman added.
On December 1, 1963, Scott made a drastic decision to try and improve his car’s handling by removing one of the two shock absorbers normally connected at each corner of the suspension. He reasoned the change could allow his car to better navigate the bumpy Jacksonville, Florida, dirt track and outrun the faster factory-backed teams.
The gamble paid off, and Scott completed the race distance before every other driver. However, NASCAR refused to acknowledge his historic victory until hours later, after a white driver had already left with the trophy. But even this injustice could not deter Scott from doing what he loved.
This reinterpretation of Scott’s story—through a civil rights lens and from a geography perspective—is an effort to highlight the narratives of countless African Americans who participated in the struggle but will never be featured in an article or history book. And although Scott did not represent his efforts in terms of civil rights activism, the researchers argue that driving was inherently part of his political practice.
“Pursuing what makes you happy—simply persevering and continuing to do what you love—can be revolutionary, and we don’t often think about that,” Inwood said.
The type of inequality Wendell Scott faced did not end when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, even though discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was officially outlawed.
“Today, many Americans must continue to employ creative methods just like Scott did in an effort to live, move about freely, and persevere through prejudice,” Inwood said. “If you look at the litany of people who have lost their lives in traffic deaths at the hands of police or someone in the community, almost all of those stories are connected to trying to live everyday life.”
Inwood also believes that contemporary events like the Black Lives Matter movement are drawing attention to the vulnerability experienced by people of color on the streets and how it affects their ability to survive.
Even though it has been over 40 years since Wendell Scott raced his last lap, the story of his persistence and ingenuity continues to provide inspiration. And as the push for social and racial justice continues, Alderman and Inwood hope other social scientists will tell similar relatable stories for generations to come.