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Black Protest and Transportation

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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.

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