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"Free To Ride" Documentary Explores A Different Bus Civil Rights Fight

Terrell Flucas/Matt Martin
A "Human Bus" rally crossed I-676 outside Dayton to protest for additional bus stops.

In 2011, the Dayton  Regional Transport Authority went to the suburb of Beavercreek, Ohio, with a seemingly simple request: add an additional three bus stops to an already existing route.

The city council refused, and what followed was a three-year fight that traversed questions of race, privilege, and access. It's the focus of a new documentary, Free to Ride, produced by Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Before Matt Martin and Jamaal Bell, researchers at the Kirwin Institute, could recount the fight for equality in Beavercreek, they had to win the fight.

At the time, the organization Leadership for Equality and Action in Dayton (LEAD) argued that, given the respective racial make-ups of Dayton and Beavercreek, refusing to add the bus stops violated the federal Civil Rights Act. That's when the Kirwan Institute became involved.

"We made a series of maps to show where the bus route went, where it didn't go, and then who, particularly communities of color, were impacted by this," Martin says. "West Dayton is very black, and Beavercreek is only 3 percent black, so we showed, in maps, really who was hurt most by this decision."

Those maps became part of the legal complaint that eventually convinced the Federal Highway Commission that Beavercreek was not complying with the Civil Rights Act. The city council went back through their process to ensure it was done in a non-discriminatory way, and service to the three bus stops began in January 2014.

The decision, Martin says, was a significant victory for the citizens of Dayton, and for a larger movement.

"There's a history to how our cities and our regions developed, there's this very segregated landscape," Martin says. "In order to overcome that, not only do we need to make headway in housing, but people have to go to where opportunity is, and that's really the heart of this story."

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.