PRRAC Civil Rights Research, Original release 2002
Raymond A. Mohl
Department of History, University of Alabama at Birmingham
© Raymond A. Mohl
American cities experienced dramatic change in the decades after the Second World War. These changes included the massive deconcentration of central city population, the shift of economic activities to the suburban periphery, the deindustrialization or redistribution of metropolitan manufacturing, and a racial turnover of population that left many of the largest American cities with a majority black population well before the end of the twentieth century. Various government policies contributed to these large-scale changes, such as tax and mortgage policies, public housing programs, and urban redevelopment schemes. Closely connected to these powerful urban transformations was the construction after 1956 of the national interstate highway system, a 42,500-mile network of high-speed, limited-access highways that linked cities across the country. When policy makers and highway engineers determined that the new interstate highway system should penetrate to the heart of the central cities, they made a fateful decision, but also a purposeful one. Indeed, the interstate system’s urban expressways, or freeways, not only penetrated the cities but they ripped through residential neighborhoods and leveled wide swaths of urban territory, ostensibly to Civil Rights Research Original release: 2002 facilitate automobility. In retrospect, it now seems apparent that public officials and policy makers, especially at the state and local level, used expressway construction to destroy lowincome and especially black neighborhoods in an effort to reshape the physical and racial landscapes of the postwar American city.