Home / General / Black Protest and Transportation

Black Protest and Transportation



Interesting essay on the connections between recent Black Lives Matter protests that block freeways and the long-term relationship between transportation networks and race.

Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.

If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.

Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.

To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.

Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).

Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.

Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.

Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.

“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”

The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.

“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”

This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”

Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • CrunchyFrog

    “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”

    Minor nitpick. I think the gist is correct but all of those towns listed had thriving downtowns along the commuter railroad stops before the freeways were built. You can still visit them today, and the latter two downtowns are now beehives of activity again after the suburban mall era came and went – in large part because the commuter railroad is as active now as it has ever been (not so in Fremont or any place in the east bay, sadly).

    A better example of white towns made possible by the freeways in that area are Cupertino, Woodside, and Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Now of course those cities have large minority populations due to Silicon Valley demographics, but few blacks.

    • Fighting Words

      A minor nitpick to your nitpick. In your post, you state “not so in Fremont or any place in the east bay, sadly”. I write this as someone who grew up in Fremont, and has lived most of his life in the East Bay. Although different than areas in the Peninsula, there are a lot of thriving downtown areas built around BART stations in East Bay cities with BART stations. Fremont is a little different because they built a commercial area off I-880 and I-680, but they have always had a downtown area adjacent to the BART station, and they currently seem to be re-developing that area.

      From the original post, I should also point out that Fremont is not really a “town,” as its a “city” of well over 220,000 people.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Fremont was several cities (some of which had actual downtowns) combined into one butt ugly suburban hellhole, with an artificial, non walkable downtown built around the BART station (which has more parking spots than living spaces around it). I also don’t think Centerville, Irvington, etc ever had commuter rail or interurbans (sorta a dead spot for that between Oakland and San Jose).

      • CrunchyFrog

        Thanks for the info. Not as familiar with the east bay – I knew the commuter rail had died (the Altamont Express not providing a replacement) but as I wrote that I wondered if the BART stations had evolved similar downtowns. I’m glad to hear that they did and I’ll try to make a point to visit those neighborhoods when I’m next in the area.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      BART is de facto commuter rail once you get south of San Leandro (or maybe Hayward).

    • bratschewurst

      A better example of white towns made possible by the freeways in that area are Cupertino, Woodside, and Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

      Ironically, several of these very high-income communities also have a freeway running through them: I-280. I grew up on Stanford campus in the 60s when I-280 was being built, and remember vividly how it plowed right through the heart of Los Altos Hills. But, back in the 50s and early 60s, even high-income residential communities were powerless against the highway planners.

      • CrunchyFrog

        So, in 1994 I bought a huge hand-assembled book at the Cupertino Historical Society that showed the history of the area in maps, plus occasional local articles. There’s not a big fan base for this kind of thing but for those of us who are interested it was amazing – a real accomplishment.

        One of the many impressions I came away with was how welcomed I-280 was in Cupertino. Of course, Cupertino was one of the last areas to get built out in the south bay so there were few houses removed for I-280 as the land had long before been set aside for it (as similarly happened for most of the 85 extension 30 years later). So there wasn’t a lot of concern about people being forced out of houses. Instead, the notion of being able to DRIVE up the peninsula without having to fight with 101 (at the time still more of a thoroughfare than a freeway in most places) or take a train was considered a huge boon. They also foresaw lots of economic benefits locally due to I-280, which turned out to be true. They seemed completely unaware of the down sides, at least in print.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      A hundred or so years ago you could take an interurban down Stevens Creek to Cupertino, or commute to SF on the train from Monte Vista.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Yes, true – those interurbans were great!

        Of course, a hundred years ago it wasn’t Cupertino, it was “West Side”, and mostly just a few homes the Monte Vista area and otherwise just orchards. The housing developments started post-WW2. If you look at a map or ariel photo of Cupertino in the late 40s you can see just the very first developments start to be built in a few places. These are the oldest developments in Cupertino and at this point 50% or more of the houses have been rebuilt into McMansions, such as the area between Tantau and Lawrence (it was Lawrence Station Road then) south of Stevens Creek.

        The other rail transport was along what became Foothill Expressway and it connected to the rail line that still runs through west Cupertino and Stevens Creek and serves the cement plant with occasional trains. There was a small commuter line along there and allowed people in West Side/Monte Vista to commute up to Palo Alto and then transfer to the main Southern Pacific line to San Francisco. Los Altos’ little down town, for example, was a station on that line.

  • Nick never Nick

    If you’re interested in the blockage of transportation by protesters, you should really look at the history of Aboriginal protests in Canada, most recently the Idle No More movement of the past few years.

    Of course Canada is uniquely vulnerable to this, being the country where recently the collapse of a bridge made it literally impossible to drive from one side of the country to the other, a remarkable state of affairs for a (purportedly) G7 member.

  • CrunchyFrog

    I might also note that this kind of protest is very common in Europe, and often more coordinated and far-reaching. Trucker strikes in France have been notorious for this recently, but otherwise it’s so common that we never hear about it in the states. In late 2013 I was in Turin for business and had to adapt our schedule somewhat that week due to nightly anti-austerity general strikes that disrupted transportation throughout the city. People just accepted it and adapted. The strikes were very well attended. On one night a main strike route went by my hotel and in order to get there I had to walk for a mile with the strikers, then watched them out the hotel restaurant window through the evening – never a hint of violence to other pedestrians. Strikers were, however, quick to encircle any car which actually tried to drive on the street and I did sense a violence was implied in their threats. The police adapted by learning of the strike routes a few hours in advance and directing traffic away from them.

  • Phil Perspective

    Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.

    LOL!!! They were still blocking it, since they had to walk!!

  • Manju

    Uber EV’s on AutoPilot could be the next Cell Phone Videos on Facebook.

  • JL

    At the protest that I got arrested medicking last year, and the simultaneous one on the other side of town, public statements by protesters made similar points (though from the angle of non-black people wanting to face their own communities and bring attention to this, since it was specifically non-black people acting in solidarity with black people). Not that I suspect many people read the statements, as most of them were too busy blathering threats of violence and death, yapping about how it was terrorism and the arrestees should be locked up for life, or putting arrestees’ home addresses on their website.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    “He’s got an interstate running through his front yard.”

    I am not so certain that freeway construction targeted poor neighborhoods so much as they were the path of least resistance. That may be a distinction without a difference. Since planning no doubt took that into consideration.

    • bratschewurst

      In St. Paul, at least, the location of I-94 through the Rondo neighborhood was debated; there was a route proposed by the St. Paul city planner about a mile north that would have paralleled an existing rail line and would have displace far fewer people. (It also would not have separated the State Capitol from downtown St. Paul, as the eventual alignment did.)

      It was rejected because 1) the cost-benefit analysis required at the time favored the southern route; and 2) the so-called “desire lines” (or the minimum travel times of those most likely to connect to the route) favored the southern route as well. It was the misfortune of the Rondo neighborhood that the richest people in St. Paul lived only about 10 blocks south of them.

      I have no doubt that part of the cost-benefit analysis included land acquisition costs, which of course would have also favored the southern route as well.

      And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.

      This was not the case with I-94; there are ramps about every mile. A similar routing, I-43 from downtown Milwaukee northwards, also runs through a low-income neighborhood, but also has many on- and off-ramps to the neighborhood.

      No doubt there was racial bias in the routing of some Interstates. But, historically, the neighborhoods around the central business districts of many American cities were where the poor people and the most recent migrants lived, as older migrant communities moved out when they moved up the social scale (the geographic heart of the black community in Milwaukee was first German and then Jewish, and the best deli in the city is smack-dab in the middle of the poorest part of Milwaukee.) The low-income community in Denver that my mother grew up in had virtually no minorities but ended up buried by an Interstate nonetheless.

      It was inevitable that, once the decision was made that the Interstate system should go into cities, rather than skirt them, low-income areas would be destroyed out of proportion to their populations relative to the rest of urban America – especially given how important cost-benefit analyses were to routing decisions.

  • Woodrowfan

    when I saw the photo my first thought was “Robert Moses.”

    That’s a fascinating essay, thanks for linking to it…

  • CrunchyFrog

    Atrios (Duncan Black) has observed many times that the 1950s-1970s was an era of “build freeways” in cities with few to question if it made sense. For sure, the poorer and powerless were generally screwed by this trend and I can definitely see locals using them to create buffer zones away from the black neighborhoods. Sometimes this may not have even needed special planning. For example, I-290 in west Chicago – known locally more by it’s name, the “Eisenhower”, was routed along some existing rail tracks that already had the effect of dividing towns like Oak Park into the “right” and “wrong” sides of the tracks. I-290 included a new “L” line, so the whole development was 2+ blocks wide – creating a sizable buffer.

    But sometimes it was just pigheaded stupidness without any ulterior motives. The folks of Grass Valley and Nevada City, California – less than 3 miles apart along route 49 in the north end of the gold country – decided that what they REALLY needed was a freeway between their two neighboring towns. So they built 6 miles of freeway from the south end of Grass Valley to the north end of Nevada City. These are two very appealing gold-rush-era towns with lots of classic buildings from the Victorian era, but the effect is greatly diminished by Grass Valley having an elevated freeway routed a few hundred feet away from the town center – at least in Nevada City the freeway that abuts the wonderful town square is sunken, reducing noise and visual pollution somewhat.

  • SqueakyRat

    The comment thread on the WaPo article is truly appalling.

    • BigHank53

      It’s an article that mentions race. What did you expect?

  • Durham NC had one of the most successful sit-in campaigns of the Civil Rights era in the early 1960s. The black community provided so many people that the city simply couldn’t jail them all, so they integrated a number of businesses. Then Durham and NC built a freeway right through downtown that obliterated what was known as the Haiti District, mostly black middle class businesses. The freeway also amounted to a wall between the mostly black residential areas and the mostly white areas to the north.

It is main inner container footer text