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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when . . . you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 16, 1963


The Bureau of Public Roads officials who conceived and planned the Interstate System saw it as the savior of the cities-a way to reverse suburbanization and revitalize decaying portions of the city. The 1939 report to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads , described the process after noting "the leapfroglike movement of traffic from the periphery of the cities over intervening areas to their centers":

The motor vehicle itself is the primary cause of this phenomenon. It made possible the outward transfer of the homes of citizens with adequate income from the inner city to the suburbs and it now conveys these citizens daily back and forth to their city offices and places of business.

The former homes of the transferred population have descended by stages to lower and lower income groups, and some of them (each year an increasing number, and generally those nearest the center of the city) have now run the entire gamut. Almost untenable, occupied by the humblest citizens, they fringe the business district, and form the city's slums-a blight nears its very core! . . . And now-the Federal Government is beginning to acquire them in batches in connection with its slum-clearance projects. Heralds of a better future though they are, these acquisitions comprise one of the reasons for avoidance of delay in dealing with the problem of transcity highway connections and express highways. [Toll Roads , p. 94]

The plan outlined in Toll Roads and Free Roads and its 1944 successor Interregional Highways was to replace the ring of decaying homes around the central business district of the large cities with an inner belt highway. Radial arterials would connect the inner belt with an outer belt designed to allow interstate traffic to bypass the city and let local traffic drive among the radials. [Weingroff, Richard F., "The Genie in the Bottle," Public Roads , September/October 2000, p. 2]

The report did not characterize "the humblest citizens" who occupied the inner ring. When the two reports were drafted, the residents would have been a mix of poor whites, immigrants, and migrants, including many African-Americans from the rural South. By the 1960s, the decayed housing stock left to them by the suburban migration was referred to as the ghetto, a source of so much turmoil that cities appeared to be ungovernable. Many African-Americans had escaped the ghetto, often to live in the original set of suburban housing stock that the white population was fleeing to new stock further out, including beyond the city limits.

By the time construction began to replace the homes of "the humblest citizens" with Interstate highways in the mid-1950s, a different world than the one the authors of the 1939 and 1944 reports to Congress lived in would confront the Nation's road builders. In 1930s, even the 1940s, the highway plan seemed logical, even visionary-replace the lowest priced housing stock that generated limited tax revenue with highways that would not only carry traffic efficiently but inspire development, and increased tax revenue, in the corridors. However, Supreme Court rulings, marches and protests, and new Federal laws toppled the laws segregating the races in the South and gave African-Americans political power and economic opportunity.

Historian Mark H. Rose explained some of the effects of the change on the urban vision conceived along with the Interstate System:

In many instances, engineers and local planners and politicians had sketched those routes years before, often as far back as 1939 when the neighborhoods were populated mostly by white householders . . . . By the early 1950s, however, urban America was in the middle of a vast movement of population in which black householders took up residence in the areas near downtown and whites relocated to the urban periphery. In short, black families and businesses now resided along potential Interstate corridors-areas of dense traffic flow and cheap land and thus the most likely corridors for great express highways. As neighborhoods changed from white to black, then, class as well as race conflict became embedded in that engineering logic.

During the 1960s, these demographic changes began to affect route selection and construction in the nation's cities. Up to the mid-1960s, the presence of a large black population failed to influence the politics of route selection as state engineers constructed Interstate roads through black neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago, Columbus, Miami, and New York. After the mid-1960s, however, confrontation with imminent highway construction encouraged formation of business and neighborhood groups dedicated to stopping the construction process.

Protesters decried "institutionalized racism" in the road program, which sought to build "white men's roads through black men's bedrooms." The battles of the Civil Rights Movement had not only emboldened African-Americans to fight for justice, but had taught them the tactics that worked:

By the late 1960s, moreover, leaders of many of those groups had become sophisticated about deploying legal and administrative procedures that were prerequisite in delaying highway construction. [Rose, Mark H., Interstate Express Highway Politics: 1939-1989 (Revised edition), The University of Tennessee Press, 1979, p. 107-108]

Howard Gillette, Jr., who studied the impacts of highway and urban development on the African-American neighborhoods of Southwest Washington, D.C., said that political compromise was not possible because "the debate had become too polarized to resolve." [Interstate Express , p. 108] The "humblest citizens" no longer were humble, and the fight against the Interstates became one element of a broad transformation of racial relations.

The link between transportation and civil rights had been forged decades earlier.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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