How a Montgomery Highway Sought To Disrupt the Heart of the Civil Rights Movement


Like many urban highways, I-85 cut through an African American neighborhood. This one was home to some of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement.

View of I-85 from overpass

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Like many urban highways, I-85 cut through an African American neighborhood. This one was home to some of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement.

In 1955, Alabama began the initial studies for an interstate route that would run through Montgomery. That was one year after Ralph Albernathy met Martin Luther King Jr. It was the same year that the Montgomery Improvement Association — which the pair helped launch in response to the arrest of activist Rosa Parks, secretary of the local NAACP branch — organized a more than year-long bus boycott.

Though the city had initially been left out of the highway system proposed by the United States Bureau of Public Roads, the state intended to include it. The 1955 state plans show the route running south of the city, but the route quickly crept further north. By the time the state highway department selected a route that ran right through the heart of Montgomery's only middle-class African American neighborhood, the department was run by Sam Engelhardt, a man whose business cards read "I Stand for White Supremacy and Segregation" and the stage was set for a battle.

In a recently published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs, Rebecca Retzlaff, an associate community planning professor at Auburn University, argues that the decision to run Interstate 85 south of the segregated Oak Park, through a neighborhood known for its civil rights activity, "was designed to displace and punish the organizers and leaders of the civil rights movement and to reduce the number of registered African American voters." Through archival research, Retzlaff reconstructs the history of the highway's routing, offering "indirect evidence" of the route's role in furthering the state's interest in segregation and voter disenfranchisement.

At the same time, civil rights activists in Montgomery faced violence, arrests and also had to confront other threats. Urban highway construction, Retzlaff notes, "had devastating effects on neighborhoods and people" across the country, often with race-specific impacts. In Florida, for example, the state chose to run I-95 "through Overtown to Miami, wiping out an African American neighborhood and business district," instead of the alternative: running it along an abandoned railroad.

Residents and activists organized "freeway revolts" to try to resist or reroute planned highways. In the case of Atlanta, writes Retzlaff, organizers had some success in pushing I-75/85 "slightly away from a Black retail area" though it still ended up disrupting the neighborhood.

Each battle had its own particulars, including in Montgomery, where segregation was "written into every aspect of city law." There, the civil rights organizing drew the ire and attention of state officials.

Though many cities dealt with the destruction of urban freeways, "Montgomery’s interstate construction came as the civil rights movement put the city under an international spotlight," wrote Andrew J. Yawn in a recent piece in the Montgomery Advertiser.

Students and faculty at what is today Alabama State University near Oak Park were active in protests, including the bus boycott and freedom rides. "Many students and faculty were expelled and fire by the university for these activities at the insistence of Governor [John] Patterson," notes Retzlaff. Off campus, the organizing continued. Abernathy, who served as a dean at the school, lived and preached nearby, as did King.

Through archival research, Retzlaff documents how state officials like Engelhardt thought about the displacement the community would experience as a result of the route selection. "Engelhardt knew that displacing the middle-class American American community in Montgomery," which made up much of the city's registered black voting population, "would leave them with few other housing options in the city," due to intense segregation. Property owners along the state's preferred route, meanwhile, "believed that Engelhardt had chosen the route to punish them for their civil rights activities," writes Retzlaff.

Though there were other options, the state stood behind its decision to run the highway through the city's wealthiest African American neighborhood. In 1961, Abernathy sent a telegram to President Kennedy seeking intervention. "[I]f this route is approved," he wrote, "it will destroy one of the best negro neighborhoods in the south and make for a hazardous condition near the local negro college, a high school, and an elementary school." His home would also be affected. But his concern, he said, was with the larger impacts to the community. "The destruction of this neighborhood will only aid the segregationist in their attempt to make the negro vote as ineffective as possible."

The White House did get involved but the state, Retzlaff demonstrates, essentially waited out its concern, on the advice of Bureau of Public Roads administrator Rex Whitton. With Governor George Wallace and a new state highway department head in place, plans for the state's desired route south of the park moved forward. This was despite the fact that, according to newspaper reports, an engineering firm had recommended a different route that actually ran through the park, which the city had closed rather than integrate after a court ordered it to do so.

Editorials criticized Abernathy, who would move to Atlanta before construction began, and others who opposed the plans as "race agitators." Abernathy's own home was only spared when plans for an exit were scrapped.

By 1978, notes Retzlaff, the city rezoned the area in the shadow of the highway. Residents complained about noise and pollution and said they were unable to sell their homes. With the new office land use designation, they were able to move and the immediate area was further transformed. "There are many well-kept homes in the area," writes Retzlaff, "but also a lot of vacancies." The population dipped and commercial corridors withered. The neighborhood's connection to ASU was also altered, "with the expressway acting as a physical barrier between the university and the neighborhood."

Today, concludes Retzlaff, few of the drivers along I-85, also called the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway, "know of the struggle to save the neighborhood."

Beyond the middle-class contingent of homes affected, other lower-income areas were also hit hard by the highway's construction.

"There I-85 barreled through an estimated 356 homes in Centennial Hill, Bel Air and The Bottoms, according to a 1960 Highway Department memo," writes Yawn. "All three were predominantly black neighborhoods, and 192 of the houses along that stretch — more than half of the residences affected — were designated as 'poor condition.' The state estimated an average payment of $3,300 per house, a price the poor and elderly felt didn't cover the loss."

"Since these people were poor and black, housing was scarce in Montgomery. They were essentially left homeless," historian Richard Bailey, who grew up in Centennial Hill, just west of the park, told the Montgomery Advertiser.

And other African American neighborhoods were affected by the construction of I-65 to the west, cementing a legacy of devastation wrought by highway construction.

“I don’t think anybody with the Highway Department or city planning would acknowledge it was, in fact, a decision based primarily on race,” Bailey told the newspaper. “But when we begin to take a look backward to see how the black community was decimated, it becomes difficult to conceive to anyone that race didn’t play a major role in the path that Interstate 85 took in Montgomery.”

Leah Binkovitz


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