Justice and the Interstates: A Proposal for a National Project of Truth and Accountability

Editor’s note: This is the eighth and final post in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries from the series are linked in the text below.

By Sarah J. Peterson

This article closes The Metropole’s month-long series on Justice and the Interstates. The authors who participated in the series did so knowing that the month would end with a proposal for a national project of truth and accountability. When the editors of The Metropole and I began working on the series late last summer, I never envisioned that the subject would have risen to such prominence that twelve days into the month of April 2021 the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation would tweet about justice and American highways: “we must face these facts in order to fix them.”

We encouraged the series authors to write whatever they thought would help prepare the way for productive discussions about the need for truth and accountability. The original proposal, found below, is built around the decisions leading to the dislocation of people and their homes, businesses, and community institutions. The articles in the series poignantly confront dislocation and also bring in additional topics, showing the way to even richer and deeper conversations about justice and the Interstates. We offer their work as a resource to support the continued development of accountability in public policy, the highway industry, and the transportation and urban planning professions.

Rebecca Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot provide an overview of the history of the Interstate Highway System and illustrate the need for truth and reconciliation with the history of how white supremacists used the Interstates to disrupt the community of Black leaders of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. Danielle Wiggins writes of the formerly prosperous Sweet Auburn neighborhood in Atlanta: although expressway construction led directly to its decline, Wiggins reminds us that imagining that we can restore what once was comes with its own set of contradictions. Kyle Shelton, focusing on Houston, introduces highway-side communities that experience waves of widening and reconstruction and the continuing challenges of fairly implementing processes of public input.

Ruben L. Anthony, Jr. and Joseph Rodriguez use Milwaukee to examine the decades since initial construction, bringing in the power of memories of what was lost, as well as the relationship between justice and reconstruction of existing highways and redevelopment after freeway tear-downs, including the important connection to programs supporting disadvantaged business enterprises. Amanda K. Phillips de Lucas, in her study of highway planning in Baltimore during the late 1960s, shows that community activists soon learned that practices for public participation could be used to silence groups and appease political leaders. Tierra Bills highlights the ReConnect Rondo initiative that has documented the stunning loss of intergenerational wealth tied to the construction of I-94 through this core Black neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, while advocating for a land bridge to restore the neighborhood’s connection to the city. Sarah Jo Peterson began the month with an examination of how myths about the Interstates dating to the 1970s are still getting in the way of pursuing justice.

The proposal itself is intended to outline the minimum scope of an investigative project to be led by the federal government. I am profoundly grateful to the authors for their interest in and contributions to the series and to the senior editor and assistant editors at The Metropole for the vision and support needed to make the series a reality.

The Proposal

A community which displaces large numbers of people through activities designed for the general benefit has a responsibility to help these persons adjust satisfactorily to the new conditions. This responsibility is greatest where the potential injury is greatest—that is, among lower income and minority groups, the elderly, and others least equipped for what may be for them a major crisis.

–The Sagamore Conference on Highways and Urban Development, 1958[1]

The painful legacies of how the Interstate System was constructed are still very much alive in American politics and society. The historians—academic historians, public historians, and local keepers of memory—have done the work and developed the methods to make a project aimed at true accountability feasible. However, leadership and support from the federal government are required to complete the necessary investigations and to create a process that would examine and select among alternatives for accountability. Such a process must include the people directly harmed and their descendants.

An investigative project would also require expertise in highway engineering, transportation planning, urban planning, and the history of technology and should incorporate expertise in the psychological and economic trauma of forced relocation. In addition, the scope of the analysis should go beyond the location of the physical highways to include the larger economic and policy worlds to which highways belong. For example, the decisions highway leaders made cannot be understood without examining their long-standing—and at times fraught—commitment to facilitating freight movement by truck. The analysis should also include the consequences that flowed from the National Environmental Policy Act. This federal law changed the power dynamics of highway decision making in ways we should not simply assume protected the most vulnerable.

The proposed investigative project is in four parts:

            1) Identify the segments of the Interstate System that were explicitly used as tools to advance the political project of white supremacy, including who did so and how. This analysis should also include the Interstate System in rural areas.

            2) Identify the segments of the Interstate System where evidence indicates that decision-makers sacrificed vulnerable communities, especially Black neighborhoods, in order to save white neighborhoods.

            3) Identify where, how, and why the relocation of households, businesses, and community institutions failed by the standard highway leaders and city planners set in 1958. This should include a) procedures for land acquisition; b) provisions for relocation support; c) rehabilitation of remnant neighborhoods; and d) steps taken at the federal and state levels to ameliorate or prevent disparities in dislocation.

            4) Identify all the neighborhoods that paid the ultimate price for the “largest public works project in history.”[2] As a nation, we should honor their sacrifice.

Finally, this truth and accountability project and all subsequent reconciliation and reparative actions should be paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund, created for the Interstate Highway System in 1956.

Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, is an independent transportation consultant and the author of The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested is Invited, National Academies Press, 2020.

Featured image (at top): Downtown L.A., Ryan Reft, 2016.

[1] The Sagamore Conference on Highways and Urban Development: Guidelines for Action (Syracuse University, 1958), 9-10, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015020911189.

[2] Michael Beschloss, https://twitter.com/beschlossdc/status/1277588600465567748, June 29, 2020.

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