This ’66 Volkswagen bus was a foot soldier in the civil rights movement

Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus

The green and white Volkswagen Microbus was a familiar sight trundling in and around Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1960s. VW buses were uncommon in the American South, and this one stood out particularly, with hand lettering on the back that read: “LOVE IS PROGRESS, HATE IS EXPENSIVE.” On the left side were the words “Citizen’s Committee’s Credit Union & Citizenship Projects.” Almost invariably, the bus was driven by Esau Jenkins, with his neatly trimmed mustache, habitual bow tie, and a face made for smiling. Without fail, riding beside him was his wife, Janie B. Jenkins.

Mr. Esau and Mrs. Janie—as they were known—were both born in 1910 on Johns Island, the largest of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Their formal education went only through fourth and eighth grade, respectively, and they married at age 17. Although neither would likely use the term, today we’d call them “civic leaders.” In reality, they were simply doing what they could to improve the lives of fellow African Americans while providing the best possible lives—and education—for their 13 children.

Despite their humble origins, the couple’s lifetime of accomplishments is itself humbling. They were successful business owners, with several motels, restaurants, and stores that primarily served the African American community. They were instrumental in launching the Community Owned Federal Credit Union, which offered African Americans access to affordable financial services. They successfully advocated for the first high school for African Americans on Johns Island and helped to establish adult literacy and voter registration programs that later became known as Citizenship Schools throughout the South. They spearheaded the establishment of the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation to serve low-income residents of Johns Island and neighboring communities. And working with others, they established the Progressive Club, which offered a safe haven for children as well as meeting and guest rooms for visiting speakers or members of the national civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As their businesses prospered, Mr. Esau and Mrs. Janie offered increasing opportunities to local African Americans and invested in their community. By the 1940s, Mr. Esau and Mrs. Janie owned several stake-bodied trucks that were used daily to transport workers and students between the Sea Islands and various areas around Charleston County. Following World War II, the couple bought a used city bus, the first of many. Driven by Mr. Esau, his older sons, and trained local drivers, the buses provided essential transportation and became rolling classrooms as Mrs. Janie taught adults to read the section of the U.S. Constitution required to become registered voters.

Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus

Sometime after 1966, Mr. Esau and Mrs. Janie bought their first passenger vehicle, a used green and white Volkswagen Type 2 Deluxe Transporter. Selected primarily for its reliability, it was powered by VW’s familiar air-cooled, 1493-cc pushrod flat-four making 53 horsepower. Like all VW buses of the period, it had a four-speed manual transmission, manual steering, and manual brakes. After the lumbering trucks and full-size buses, the VW with its vinyl seats and floor mats, windup windows, and heater (albeit feeble) must have seemed luxurious. With its 72-mph top speed, son Abraham Bill Jenkins even called it fast.

The VW was used to travel to and from the couple’s businesses in Charleston and Atlantic Beach, to community meetings and church services, and for trekking all over the southeast as Mr. Esau became more involved in civil rights issues. Papa, as he was known to his children and grandchildren, was the VW’s primary driver; Mrs. Janie never held a driver’s license. The Jenkinses drove the VW extensively until October 1972, when, as a passenger in another vehicle, Mr. Esau was severely injured in a car accident. He died on October 30, and the VW was soon parked in the garage. When the family home was enlarged in 1974, the Jenkinses moved the VW into the back yard, where it began a long, decaying slumber. Mrs. Janie just couldn’t let it go.

Over the following decades, exposure to the elements, the salt air of the island, and multiple hurricanes took their toll on the VW. Corrosion set in, the right front door rusted off completely, and the A-pillar collapsed. The bus gradually sank into the earth. Long after Mrs. Janie’s death in August 1998, the old VW bus sat.

Then, in June 2014, to honor the civil rights legacy of the Jenkinses in a permanent exhibit, the rear hatch and the engine cover were shipped to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The green paint was faded and chalky, but the white lettering proclaiming the Jenkinses’ motto remained.

Alerted by research into the bus from the College of Charleston and compelled by the history of the Jenkinses, the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) started the process of listing the VW on the National Historic Vehicle Register. “It began with a trip to Johns Island this past March to determine the overall stability of the bus,” says HVA vice president Diane Parker. “We needed to know what was required to excavate it so that it didn’t collapse on itself.”

Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Civil Rights 1966 Volkswagen Bus
Preston Rose

To their delight, the old bus wasn’t so frail after all. But extracting it was easier said than done. A team of three HVA staffers soon returned, aided by Keith Flickinger—curator and chief restorer at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage—and local car enthusiast and Progressive Club member Joe Boykin. Casey Maxon of the HVA photographed the bus to ensure a complete visual record of the process, and Flickinger welded braces from the chassis to the inside roof supports, ensuring it wouldn’t collapse.

Next, the group dug out the soft soil surrounding the bus. They were able to raise the front with a jack and discovered several glass bottles beneath a crossmember. They had been placed there who knows how long ago by Mrs. Janie and, amazingly, had prevented the bus from sinking farther into the ground. The team replaced the original wheels and dead tires, and with two of the wheels actually rolling and the other two on plywood “skids,” Boykin used his truck’s winch to slowly, painstakingly, exhume the VW. Before it was loaded into Flickinger’s trailer for the 15-hour trip to the HVA’s lab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the team shrink-wrapped the entire bus to protect it.

It will take several months to fully document and photograph the VW before it is listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register, and the HVA plans to display it on the National Mall in September. But then what? The Jenkins family is adamant that the bus be preserved rather than restored. “The family’s ultimate goal is to have the VW bus back home on display at the International African American Museum in Charleston and then on permanent display in the future Progressive Club Museum on Johns Island,” said daughter Elaine Jenkins and her niece, Eldrina Jones, in a statement.

It’s fitting that the VW return to the Low Country. After all, it was such a steady fixture there in the late 1960s and early ’70s as Mr. Esau and Mrs. Janie worked so tirelessly to change their world, one life and one mile at a time.