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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Rodney E. Slater - Beyond the Dreams

Rodney E. Slater was born in Tutwiler, Mississippi, on February 23, 1955, but soon moved with his unmarried mother to her native State where they lived in Marianna, Lee County, Arkansas. He grew up as an African-American in the final years of the Jim Crow era that would come to an official end less than 10 years later. On June 16, 1993, he became the first African-American to hold the post of Federal Highway Administrator, and would serve in that post until he became, in 1997, the second African-American to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation after William T. Coleman, Jr.

Although he never knew his father, Slater grew up with his mother Velma and stepfather Earl Brewer, a mechanic and maintenance man. When he was in the third grade, his family moved to a brick duplex on Anna Strong Circle in a new public housing project on the edge of town. As a profile of Slater in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explained, "By the standards of time and place, the homes on Anna Strong Circle looked good. One longtime acquaintance says the duplexes, with their indoor plumbing, were a definite improvement over much of the available housing." Slater told the reporters he recalled sitting outside his new home and wondering where the passing cars were headed.

(Anna M. Paschal Strong was a native Arkansan, an educator and principal, an Assistant in the Arkansas State Department of Education, and a staff member at Tuskegee and other universities and colleges.)

At age 6, he earned money in the cotton fields-$2.50 to $3 per hundred pounds of cotton picked-to buy a red Schwinn Bicycle. His mother said, "He was so proud" of the bicycle he had bought with money he had earned on his own.

He attended the Anna Strong Elementary School for African-American children. The newspaper profile explained:

Slater's contemporaries are quick to correct what they feel is a misperception about the Delta of those days. Far from the hopeless picture often presented of the region, they say Marianna was a place where black children, though poor, were pushed and expected to succeed. Part of that was a legacy of segregation-the self-reliance of black farmers, educators and small-business owners. Part of it was the push for civil rights. The dreams Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken of were in the air.

When Slater was in the 10th grade, Marianna's white and African-American schools were consolidated. "In grade school and junior high," the profile indicated, "he longed to compete with children from the other side of the color line, to test his academic and athletic skills against theirs." As he put it, "I always wanted to know how I stacked up."

In elementary school, Slater enjoyed competing in speaking contests, displaying a strong competitive spirit as students read from the works of African-American writers such as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois.

By the 7th grade, he had secured his mother's permission to play football. His play at Lee High School-in one game, he ran a 98-yard kickoff return despite having his helmet knocked off during the run-earned him a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He turned down a track scholarship to the University of Arkansas. "Eastern Michigan gave me a chance to get away," he explained. "I wanted to be on my own and see things I've never seen before." [Kiely, Kathy, and Stumpe, Joe, "Slater Takes High Road All the Way to the Top," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 9, 1997]

After graduating in 1977, he attended the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, receiving his law degree in 1980. Slater would serve in several State posts, including Assistant Attorney General for Arkansas, but his future would become entwined with Governor Bill Clinton. In 1982, Slater left his State job to work on Clinton's campaign to regain the post he had lost in 1980. After Clinton began his second term as Governor, he appointed Slater his special assistant for community affairs. Slater would later serve as director of governmental relations at Arkansas State University from 1987 to 1993.

In 1987, Governor Clinton appointed Slater to the Arkansas State Highway Commission, which sets policy and oversees the activities of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department. The first African-American to serve on the commission, Slater also was the first to serve as its chairman in 1992.

After defeating President George H. W. Bush in the election of November 1992, President-elect Clinton appointed Slater the new Federal Highway Administrator. He took the oath of office on June 16, 1993. His wife Cassandra Wilkins and daughter Bridgett, along with his mother, were on hand for the ceremony.

During his tenure as Federal Highway Administrator (1993-1997), Slater strongly supported the National Highway System (NHS)-160,000 miles of principal arterial roads and intermodal connectors, including the Interstate System, that serve as the backbone of America's intermodal transportation system. He played a key role in securing congressional passage of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995.

In addition, he strengthened FHWA's commitment to Intelligent Transportation Systems, intermodal transportation, effective emergency response, innovative financing and contracting, and environmental enhancement, and made significant improvements in motor carrier and highway safety. He also coordinated FHWA's responses to several major natural disasters, including Midwest flooding in 1993 and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in California.

Slater led the FHWA's most extensive outreach effort in its history by touring America to look, listen, and learn from people who use, build, and maintain our roads and bridges. His initial tour was in 1993 when he lead a 14-day, 14-State road tour demonstrating the potential of the NHS. During this tour, he stopped in Henning, Tennessee, to visit the Alex Haley Museum, dedicated to the memory of the African-American author whose best known work was Roots. At the author's gravesite, Slater was taken by six words on the headstone: "Find the Good and Praise It." They would become his watchwords in coming years. He saw them as a companion to a sentiment he would express many times:

While I found much good [on the road tour], we all have to continue working every day to meet the transportation challenges of the 21st century.

Because transportation is not just about concrete, asphalt, and steel. It's about people, the people we serve today and tomorrow. [Slater, Rodney E., "Find the Good and Praise It," Constructor, June 1994]

Other outreach trips included a road tour through the Southeast and a tour from San Francisco to Washington in 1996 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Interstate System.

Throughout these years, his emphasis was on putting people first by helping them not only to meet their transportation goals, but to achieve the American Dream. FHWA, he said, must remain a visionary and vigilant Agency as it faces the challenges of the 21st century. He worked to demonstrate, in words and actions, that transportation is about providing all Americans with access to opportunities.

Following President Clinton's reelection to a second term in 1996, he chose Slater to be the 13th Secretary of Transportation-only the second FHWA Administrator to be appointed Secretary, after John A. Volpe. In nominating Mr. Slater, the President said, "He has built bridges both of steel and of goodwill to bring people closer together."

Slater, then 41 years old, would serve as Secretary from February 14, 1997 to January 20, 2001. The Department's historian, Dr. Dale Grinder, summed up Secretary Slater's tenure:

During Slater's first year and a half at DOT, Congress passed the largest public works legislation in history-the Transportation Equity Assistance Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21); airline and railroad mergers-with proposed limitations-again became fashionable; Department negotiators helped to avert a strike against Amtrak-and Congress mandated the [National Passenger Rail] Corporation's overhaul; [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] issued regulations allowing consumers to turn off their airbag switches where necessary; and the United States finalized a long-sought, liberalized aviation agreement with Japan. Also, in keeping with his conviction that transportation was about "more than concrete, asphalt, and steel," Slater announced the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Futures program to encourage students to choose careers in transportation; a "Safe Skies for Africa" Initiative to promote sustainable improvements in aviation safety and airport security in Africa; and on October 8, 1998, proposed the idea of creating a unified Department-ONE DOT, able to act as an integrated, purposeful leader increasing transportation efficiency and effectiveness.

While still Federal Highway Administrator, Slater addressed an FHWA audience during the Black History Month Kick-Off Program on February 3, 1994. The theme that year was:

African-Americans:
Rich in Heritage, Strong in Contribution,
Pioneering the Future

Slater talked about the contributions African-Americans had made to the Nation's infrastructure. He spoke of the contribution of African-American troops to the Alaska Highway "despite military segregation, substandard equipment, and severe weather conditions." He spoke of the African-American trailblazers who "risked jail and death during the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s, and laid the foundation and paved the way so that the generations who followed might have opportunities that they and their forefathers were denied."

He mentioned some of the agency's own trailblazers and told the story of the Voting Rights March along U.S. 80 between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. It was, he said, "a story about a bridge and about a road and about Martin Luther King, Jr." He told about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Bloody Sunday beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the abbreviated march onto the bridge that Dr. King turned back for fear of a trick, and finally the march across the bridge for the trip along U.S. 80 to Montgomery. He quoted Dr. King's speech in this version:

Last Sunday more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. They told us we wouldn't get here, and there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies. But all the world together knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the State of Alabama, saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."

Slater concluded:

Today the generation that came after that march enjoys - and perhaps sometimes takes for granted - the rights that were gained only by the sweat and strain of a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, along U.S. 80 through heat and rain. Highways and bridges, you see, can play a part in our history far beyond the dreams of their engineers.

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000