The great popular hero of the civil rights movement in America is of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.who did more to rock the foundations of the Jim Crow segregated south than anyone. Arguably the finest orator of his age, he was courageous as he was inspiring. Using the strategy of non-violent protest against entrenched racism was brilliant as it was moral, but not everyone agreed with his methods, viewing them as demeaning to the dignity of a people whose pride had already been ground down for generations. But it was anything but demeaning, and it was a brilliant strategy. Those who lived during the sixties felt respect, if not awe for those like current Congressman John Lewis, who peacefully protested with such self control and courage. In the end, within a short number of years, with a minimum loss of life, official segregation in the south ended, and while there is still racism, Afro-Americans are no longer helpless victims of this evil.
Though King certainly deserves accolades, there is somebody else who was just as, if not more important in the civil rights struggle. Not a minister. Not a politician. Not a writer. In fact, he would have been most surprised to learn that his life’s efforts laid the groundwork for the destruction of Jim Crow. He was an engineer named Willis Carrier (1876-1950), inventor of modern air conditioning. In 1914 he filed his patent, and in the ensuing years, his company, Carrier, manufactured air conditions. It was in the decades following World War II that his invention gained wide spread popularity.
What does the air conditioner have to do with civil rights? To answer this we must understand the social forces of densely populated agrarian societies. In most cases,they have a small, wealthy class with the rest being the poor who compete for scarce resources. Often, as in the case of India, and the southeastern United States, caste systems evolve. In America, the majority of whites, no matter how poor and politically ineffective, could feel a measure of pride being on a higher social scale than the Blacks. It was this socio-economic, psychological phenomenon that kept the Jim Crow system securely in place.
Air conditioning made it practical to have indoor offices and factories that could be kept cool in the south’s torrid summers. Since their winters are usually free from the severe cold that characterizes northern winters, there was an incentive for northern industry to relocate to the south. This influx of industry brought wealth and economic opportunity for everyone, so that the psychological incentive for Whites to lord it over Blacks weakened.
In the pre-air conditioned industrialized south, activist Marcus Garvey attempted a broad range civil rights movement. He failed. Decades later the civil rights movement succeeded because of the economic changes made possible by Willis Carrier.