Must-read. An analysis of how urban planners in Montgomery, Alabama, routed, and then re-routed I-65 and I-85 through specific parts of Montgomery in order to punish Civil Rights leaders. A route for I-65 further to the east would have been cheaper to build, and more convenient, and moving I-85 further south would have accomplished the same. Instead the interchange was placed dead-center of the neighborhood where Civil Rights leaders lived, taking many of their homes. Alabama State’s campus was essentially bisected, and numerous faculty homes were taken through eminent domain.
Not coincidentally, the cloverleaf exchange for I-65 and I-85 sat smack in the middle of, and destroyed the route followed by the activists on the Selma to Montgomery March.
One can see in this planning map the original proposed line in green. The red-dash line that dropped straight down from the green line was proposed by Sam Englehart, Director of the Alabama Highway Department, His family had been slaveowners, he still ran a plantation with sharecroppers, and had very close connections to the “White Citizens Council” he was an outspoken white supremacist. He proposed the red-dash route as a means of disrupting the Civil Rights leaders’ ability to organize, and to remove an upper-middle class African American neighborhood that had a very strong record of voting and participating in politics. This isn’t speculation or analysis based on inference – Englehart specifically wrote that this was his intent in memos to state leaders. The original green route had been favored because it was cheaper to acquire the land, and because it would prompt economic development to the west. The route with the red diversion from the green was eventually chosen for the specific reasons Englehart outlined in numerous memos – to punish those involved in the Civil Rights movement and to eliminate a center of Black political power.
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[d] by the university for these activities at the insistence of Governor [John] Patterson,” notes Retzlaff. Off campus, the organizing continued. [Civil Rights activist Ralph] 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.
Probably not easily accessible:
[ Retzlaff, R. (2021). The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Racial Basis for Interstate Highways and Urban Renewal. Journal of Urban History, 47(6), 1301–1347. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144220917470]
Easier to access: