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What Does South Dallas Think About Highways? Let’s Ask a ‘Militant’ Black Leader.

I-45 running through the Spence neighborhood in South Dallas
I-45 running through the Spence neighborhood in South Dallas

In the discussion about possibly tearing down I-345, the Dallas Morning News editorial board and its partner, Michael Morris of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, have come to the defense of the working poor in South Dallas. At the paper, Rodger Jones writes about “economic justice,” and Tod Robberson tells us that lowering I-345 would throw the lives of South Dallas commuters into “upheaval.” Morris says only rich white people are interested in tearing down the elevated freeway. Let’s see about that.

First, a bit of a history lesson. Back in 1970, when Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was still Forest Avenue, a little neighborhood called Spence (named after the five-block-long Spence Street) caught wind of the Texas Highway Commission’s plan to build an elevated highway through its patch of sunny South Dallas. That highway is called I-45, and it becomes I-345 just south of downtown, after it intersects with I-30. The Spence residents didn’t much care for the idea of an elevated highway, especially since it wouldn’t have any on- or off-ramps in their neighborhood. So they organized and made themselves heard. Black physicians sympathetic to the cause paid for vans so that the group could drive to Austin and tell the highway planners not to destroy their neighborhood.

On September 26, 1970, Stewart Davis published a column in the Morning News about this effort to keep the highway planners in check. The column was headlined “Road Protests Stun Engineers.” Here’s a taste:

Texas Highway Engineer J.C. Dingwall and his chief aides appeared rather stunned by the display of opposition September 15 to a proposed elevated freeway through the Spence Street neighborhood of South Dallas.

The highway engineers weren’t taken so much by the opposition itself, for they are accustomed to running into that. It was the militancy of the delegation of about 50 black and white neighborhood leaders which startled the highway men. …

Ironically, the highway engineers have brought it on themselves, because the same insulation from politics which they cherish and which makes Texas highways among the most efficient in the world also insulates the highway builders from the political pressures which tend to add human values to our roads.

And human values were the things the road men were accused of leaving out of the Spence Street project.

The demonstration of a united community front against the Spence Street project was surprising because Dallas people previously have shown themselves to be the staunchest supporters of good roads.

Yet, the opposition came from various segments of Dallas political life, ranging from the entire 15-member House delegation from Dallas County to City Hall, from civic groups to black militants. …

The day evidently has come when people actually may prefer to do without a new freeway than suffer the social and human costs.

Forty-four years later, that column echoes eerily in Dallas. I’ve read a bunch of other stories published around that same time and leading up till the final pieces of I-45 and I-345 were completed, in 1976. At no point did anyone in South Dallas say, “Thank you! Finally! We’ve been waiting for someone to build a highway through here so that we can get to North Dallas and find some economic justice.”

I shouldn’t be so snarky. My apologies. That’s my immaturity showing. You know someone who is more mature than I am? Rev. Peter Johnson. Johnson is a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He was also one of those “black militants” who stunned Dingwall in Austin in 1970.

Peter Johnson (courtesy icie.us/web)

Monday I went to see Johnson in his office in the Bank of America building off South Zang Boulevard. The place is decorated with a framed, signed picture of John F. Kennedy and clips from Johnson’s recent civil rights work. Leaning against one wall was a framed page from the Morning News, a 1988 “High Profile” of Johnson written by Steve Blow. As we talked, Johnson’s cellphone interrupted us pretty much nonstop with its John Coltrane ring tone. The man himself was wearing a white ballcap signed in 1998 by his friend Marques Haynes.

Johnson said they got details of the I-45 plan from elected officials. “We had some friends in the Texas Legislature, Barbara Jordan and two really, really cool white boys, Mike McKool and Oscar Mauzy. We learned that the damn highway was going to be built on top of South Dallas, with no way for blacks in South Dallas to get on the highway. Not to mention the fact that it was going to split the Spence community up, divide that community. People were very angry once they understood what was going on. These were just hardworking, everyday people living in little shotgun, wood-framed houses. But they were homes to these people. They raised their children in these homes. They took care of their homes. They planted gardens in their backyards.”

Johnson said that black physicians rented vans on several occasions so that people from Spence, many of them senior citizens, could go to Austin. I asked him how his group was received. “We were received by the Texas Rangers,” he shot back. “I’m not kidding. It was a very hostile situation. We had to train people about non-violence before we took them into a situation like that, so we didn’t get somebody bloodied or killed. We didn’t take people with us who weren’t committed to non-violence. Because it wasn’t a picnic. It was confrontational.”

Johnson and his group attended hearings, but they also just showed up at senators’ and representatives’ and highway planners’ offices. “They were accustomed to walking over people. When we got involved, it was the first time they got literally stopped in their tracks. They had a very arrogant, hostile, racist attitude. Just: ‘Screw these people. Ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of little niggers.’ That’s the kind of language they used.”

At the time, Johnson was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He said his immediate superior was “a big-foot country boy from North Carolina named Jesse Jackson.” The SCLC got involved on a national level with the fight against I-45, and Jackson came to Dallas and preached at Warren United Methodist Church (the one that now stands on Malcolm X Boulevard is a new structure, the old one having burned down). “I remember his sermon that night at Warren,” Johnson said. “One of the things he talked about was the environmental impact. He said they would send speeding cars over the heads of people in South Dallas. Those cars would cough and puff out pollution into the lungs of people in South Dallas. That’s what Jesse preached about. And he got our national leaders involved in the fight.”

Johnson said it wasn’t just black folks, though. Herbert Howard and Rabbi Levi Olan supported his cause. “They befriended me because of my commitment to non-violence. They knew that if I put 1,000 people in the streets, there would be no bloodshed.”

The compromise they eventually reached is the highway you see today. “It split the community up. It created an unnatural barrier from the east side to the west side,” Johnson said.

He doesn’t much buy the tack being taken today by the Morning News. “I’m sure the Morning News is deeply concerned about the employment of poor people in South Dallas,” he said, sarcasm oozing between each word. “They don’t have a clue, hear?” Johnson said he has an upcoming meeting with the mayor. “My message to him is the same: hey, man, in terms of economic development for low-income people in the southern sector, y’all ain’t got a clue. As evidence of that, they are going to build a fancy country club golf course down here and a place for horses. They don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about. The editorial board of the Morning News — these are people who have good hearts. They want to do what’s right. But they’re going to build us a golf course so we can be caddies.

“The solution to unemployment and underemployment in the black community is not jobs in Frisco, hear? If you really want to address that problem, build a TI over here that employs people. People driving 60 miles to work and making $30,000 a year? That’s stupid. Why do we have so many people in the black community going to Plano and Frisco at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning? Because there are no jobs in our community. If you have jobs in our community, with people making a living wage, economic development is going to happen around those jobs.”

Johnson didn’t have kind words for the city’s efforts to this point. “To show you how stupid the city of Dallas is, they gave a black man who fries chicken over here $200,000. Rudy’s Chicken. [Ed: it was actually $890,000.] I’m not mad at Rudy. But the black community is not suffering from a lack of fried-chicken places. You know? For the city to think that that’s economic development, they ain’t got a clue.”

He went on to make some pronouncements about John Wiley Price and a few other elected officials that were highly entertaining but which, in the interest of time and space, we will have to save for another time. I steered Johnson back to the topic of I-345 and what its future ought to be. “What Patrick Kennedy and them is talking about in that area, they are absolutely right. Those highways have destroyed communities,” he said, thumping his conference table for emphasis. “They inhibit the economic growth of those communities.”

So does he think people from South Dallas will support tearing down I-345? His answer surprised me. “This is Dallas,” he said. “The people who don’t want that road torn down, they’ll go to the black leaders, the black preachers, and they’ll go with money. That’s the history of this city. The black church leaders have always been for sale, unlike in any other part of the country I’ve worked in. That’s just the way this part of the country operates. That’s the Dallas way.”

Peter Johnson’s is just one voice. Even he would be quick to point out that he doesn’t speak for everyone in South Dallas. But the guy has seen more than most. So until someone can convince me otherwise, this white guy is going with Johnson’s assessment of the situation. Hear?