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

Are we making progress yet?

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?


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  • Wylie H Dallas

    Standing…. clapping.

  • JSSS

    “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.” Absolutely true, but this is the first time I have heard a member of the South Dallas community publicly state it. I hope that attitude spreads throughout the community and widens to include many of the politicians as well!

    • Brenda Marks

      Peter Johnson has been speaking truth to power for decades. He’s also been walking the walk, even in the face of those in his community who take the money and sell out their neighbors. Thank you Mr. Johnson, and may you live a long long life and never stop speaking out.

  • Wendy Flatt


  • TheSlowPath

    Next time I need a pseudonym it’s gonna be “Really cool white boy Mike McKool”

  • Alexander

    Thank you for writing this.

    • Tim Rogers

      You’re welcome. But no thanks needed. Peter Johnson is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met. Absolutely my pleasure to spend some time with the guy and listen to his stories. He deserves the thanks. He’s the guy who has been fighting for folks in South Dallas for decades. He’s the guy speaking truth to power. I just type.

  • Raymond Crawford

    Great story here, with similar themes being played out right now with the Dallas Executive Airport(Red Bird Airport) expansion that is on Dallas City Hall’s front burner but without area residents input or notification.

  • TheSlowPath

    It looks like Mike McKool and Oscar Mauzy have both passed, but looks like Mike McKool Jr. is a lawyer still living in Dallas.

  • Brenda Marks

    Both gentlemen were giants. Miss them.

  • Greg Brown

    If you really want to do some good for a neighborhood just take a look at 175. Talk about a low use highway ripping through a neighborhood. Start with that first and show us what you can do.

    • WalkableDFW

      That is coming down. Unfortunately, despite TxDOT and NCTCOG’s proclamations of grassroots success, the neighborhood is unhappy with the approved and forthcoming re-design. Rightly so. The neighborhood wanted a complete street with recaptured right-of-way for mixed-use, housing, and commercial investment opportunities. The right-of-way is over 200′ wide and could easily support that. However, TxDOT and NCTCOG (as well as the city of Dallas) declared the need for one to one lane mile capacity, so instead of building what the neighborhood needs, they’re building a sinuous suburban arterial. The unnecessary curves fill the entire right-of-way rather than using it for real economic development.

  • Tim Rogers

    You’ve got that right. Yes.

  • Old Hand

    Tim, this is one of the better things you’ve ever written for the blog or magazine.

    I hope businesses (esp. commercial real estate and construction), 1500 Marilla and the consultants that support both are paying attention. Voter attitudes are changing and people are sick of the culture of walk-around money and the misadventures of signature projects.

    We will be a better place when we bury the mentality that “shovels need to fly” in order to grow.

  • wes

    This guy is awesome.

  • Tim Rogers

    Very kind of you to say that. Thank you.

  • Columbiasooner

    Great work timmytyper

  • SkyMasterson

    Wow. That was an execllent interview, Great work, Tim.

  • JtB

    I would like to hear Peter Johnson’s views on a number of other subjects. Please give him a blog.

  • Dubious Brother

    “Voter attitudes are changing and people are sick of the culture of walk-around money and the misadventures of signature projects.” Possibly, but the election results are still the same.

  • CSP

    Yes. We will remember and hold you accountable for this, Tim:

    “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.”

  • WalkableDFW

    I want to meet him.

  • Greg Brown

    And you have just produced a perfect summation of the problem of tearing down I-345. The powers that be will just put in an equivalent volume grade-level highway instead, so all the traffic that was whizzing by will be stuck in a slow crawl downtown. THAT is not progress.

  • Thetrurth

    Wow. I totally agree with his comments about the Dallas Morning News. Other than doing code enforcement’s job for them I have always thought they do not know what they are talking about when it comes to economic development in South Dallas. Just the constant North/South references create a division in the community. We are all in this together and I think all Dallasites would support economic development programs that make sense because they benefit the entire city.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Me, too.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Things are shifting behind the scenes at a faster rate than it may seem. An increasingly large share of the City’s elite are becoming disgusted by the status quo.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Yes,I think “another time” needs to be later today.

  • Brenda Marks

    That’s the tragedy Tim. Few have followed in their footsteps.

  • Brenda Marks

    Tim, thanks for the links to Rev. Howard and Rabbi Olan. I’ve heard the name of Rabbi Olan over the years but was not familiar with the entire story.

  • Peter Kurilecz

    ” walking the walk” the correct phrase is “walking the talk”

  • billholston

    I had the privilege of spending some time with Rev. Johnson last year at his office. He told me about listening to Mahalia Jackson as they both listened to Dr. King’s I have a Dream Speech. I felt that I was listening to oral history of the very highest sort. Yeah, I’m interested in anything that good man has to say. And yeah Brenda Marks, he has been speaking truth to power since I was a kid.

  • billholston

    yeah, but this time, you typed some mighty good words Tim. Good stuff man.

  • Uppercase Matt

    But isn’t he also saying that, in the end, there won’t actually be south Dallas support for a teardown (whether from paid-off preachers or whatever)? Isn’t he also saying that, in fact, the ARE “so many people in the black community going to Plano and Frisco at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning” that would be hurt by a teardown? That is, he’s against the highway in general, and wants more jobs in south Dallas, but appears to tacitly admit that the highway is needed.

    Have you tried to find and interview any of the people who actually do use 345 on a daily basis to see what they’d do if it’s torn down?

  • Eric Celeste

    Perfect. I don’t know if the 345 teardown can achieve all its supporters suggest. But Johnson perfectly states how the “this helps southern Dallas” argument is just silly.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Focus on the whole thought… he mentions the 60 mile journey. If you assume he means 30 miles each way, and factoring in standard allowances for gas, oil, auto insurance, tires, wear and tear…. that is over $8,000 per year in commuting expense. Start with $30,000, deduct taxes, food & housing— if you then add the commuting expenses as well, the individual ends up worse off (and that’s attributing zero cost to the wasted time of sitting in traffic for up to two hours each and every day).

    It’s a sucker’s bet— that’s why these highways don’t help most people in the southern part of Dallas, even if they use them to commute to these $30,000 jobs in the cube farms up north.

  • joeptone

    No fair, Tim. I thought we’d all agreed to write about the wants and needs of southern Dallas without ever going to southern Dallas.

    • Ted

      In all fairness, Tim has not told us what the people of southern Dallas have collectively said their wants and needs are, he has just interviewed Peter Johnson, who has told us what the wants and needs of the people of southern Dallas should be.

      So I think Tim’s still cool with the agreement.

  • Pan? No, Pam

    Part of the reason you are receiving so much praise, Tim, is that you have written about the detrimental affect of our political/business machine, and I’m not sure your magazine has done that in recent years. Or ever? This topic has been owned by the Dallas Observer for years, so your willingness jump in the fray is welcome and important to making this a great place to live and work.

    • Jim Schermbeck

      Actually, I have to say that Wick and D Magazine were pretty much alone in covering the waste-burning cement plants in Midlothian back in the mid-1990’s, one of which was owned by Dallas heavyweight Ralph Rogers (KERA is housed in the Ralph Rogers building). D’s deep reporting by Rod Davis, with first-rate graphics, put the issue on the radar of other media and made it a topic of local concern from there on out. I know the subject matter may not allow it to ever land on the Magazine’s most popular Top 40 list, but if D was re-running its 40 most influential stories, that would have to be one of them. Thanks y’all. And thanks Tim for checking in with Peter Johnson to get a grassroots perspective that was much needed on THIS issue.

  • Uppercase Matt

    I follow the whole thought, but it appears to abandon reality for fantasy. Assuming that there really are that many people actually living in south Dallas and commuting to Plano/Frisco, they’re taking that “suckers bet” because it’s the only option they have. They’re already the “worse off” you describe, and tearing down their commute route doesn’t give them a job closer to home — it just turns that two-hour commute into a 2.5-3 hour commute — can you imagine the rediculous backup of people trying to get through the canyon and onto 35 then Woodall Rogers to try to get back over to 75?

    Johnson wants jobs in south Dallas for south Dallas residents — great. But if south Dallas residents are having to commute north to work (and of course I have no idea of what the real numbers of those people are; I’m just accepting his statement), then isn’t it actually harmful to them to remove their most efficient way to do so?

    Or maybe the argument actually is that “we don’t think the freeway is good for you, and we don’t think your work arrangement is sensible for you either, so we’re going to get rid of all of it.” Because we’re the ones who decide things, and we don’t need input from you folks that actually use that freeway.

  • BGBG

    So do nothing?

  • The Detective

    Oh, I was unaware that Wick Allison organized and attended the meeting where Michael Morris said the I-345 teardown was being pushed by the wealthy. I’m curious why that detail has not been mentioned in Frontburner, but it does partially explain why blogs posts about Morris have such a sharp tone.

    Protip: be transparent about your business interests and grudges, D Magazine. You don’t want to look silly again like you did during the Trinity Toll Road referendum. You lost by helping the pro-tollroad team win.

    • Eric Celeste

      Oooh. … The Detective!

  • The Detective

    Your comment is correct. The only people who know that – outside of said elite – are a few people in the media or people in a relationship with someone in the media.

  • hwulivn

    I get it all. I understand the views on both sides of the issue. Obviously the freeway decimated the neighborhood when it was built. Tearing it down and good planning would allow the neighborhood to physically stitch back together. But anybody that thinks that new development would result in housing units that existing residents can afford are totally clueless about development, real estate and economics. In addition, any commercial development that gets built would not be the type that appeals to the existing demographic of the neighborhood. I’m not saying I’m for or against and I’m not sure what drove Mr. Morris’ comments on the issue, but what he said was 100% true in that S. Dallas residents have not been included in the conversation thus far. Further, even if S. Dallas residents agreed to tearing it down somebody really needs to explain what the real end result would be. They’d really have to organize to benefit from redevelopment. And this is Dallas. So happy dreams if you think ANY of the powers that be will look out for the economic interests of S. Dallas residents…..and certainly not over the long term. But anything is possible…..La Bajada……that’s another story. I won’t start.

  • The Detective

    Huh. Midlothian? Give an example of the Magazine willing to cross the machine in the City of Dallas.

  • Greg Brown

    Any tear down should be preceded by an upgrade to surrounding roads to handle the increased traffic, designated truck lanes around 635, and increased light rail, among others.

  • Zach

    Good points. Also, those people who he claims are forced to drive to Plano/Frisco for work could also move north themselves. Obviously there are other issues that are causing South Dallas economic hardships other than a highway running through the area for the past 40 years. There are highways running through many
    areas of the city. This is a great article and an insightful look in to our community most of us don’t normally hear about. That being said, it doesn’t really answer any questions, it just creates more.

  • Michael

    This is the best summary of the debate I’ve encountered yet. In the 40 years since this roads inception, south Dallas has languished, yet the insistence stands how that very road is a vital lifeline for south Dallas. Remove the shackles of this concrete confinement, and a reunified Dallas can once again grow and prosper. Or sit around clinging to this highway while better jobs continue to drain ever farther to the north. It’s the choice of Dallas’ denizens, not TXDoT.

    • Zach

      I don’t see how ripping out the highway and developing East Dallas/Deep Ellum/Dowtown is going to solve all of South Dallas’ ills. To even suggest this will have a major impact is something I’d like to see explained. This idea could help the areas mentioned above, but to tie this to the key to helping our south dallas residents come in to the economic light is a giant leap of faith. I’m all for making Dallas a more livable/walkable city, but it has to be explained better how this benefits the entire city and not just the urban core elite. Not everyone works and lives downtown.

  • Not Buffy

    The point is the railroad came and screwed up everything.
    Don’t have time to write,so here are bullet points:
    * Dallas, around the turn of the 20th century. Far North Dallas was Uptown. Considered very rural area. Downtown Dallas was the desirable, hip cool area.
    * Freed Blacks from the North and East U.S. came to Dallas. (Doctors, lawyers)
    * Oh no, you educated Black people w/some money can only live in the non-white blocks of the St. Thomas area. (Law: One street had Black families, the next street had White families)
    * Munster Place area of Dallas built by high-end developer. White people w/money residing in St. Thomas moved there pretty damn quick. Big huge homes
    * St. Thomas became all-Black neighborhood. And then Dallas City Council/leaders said ‘hey, let’s put the railroad in by the St. Thomas neighborhood.. Separated the city’s thriving and rockin’ downtown area from the St. Thomas/Uptown area.
    * Closed of economic development, squashed ability to get to downtown directly and quickly. Non-wealthy Blacks couldn’t get to their menial jobs, in downtown Dallas and the Blacks w/money, moved to Oak Cliff, previous enclave of rich white people who left for new housing development in Munster Park and later, Highland Park.
    *St. Thomas area eventually fell into disrepair and died
    *The rest of the St. Thomas saga is now modern-day history with overpriced housing

  • Alexander

    In what world does taking 2 miles of highway off the system add an hour to a commute? You can walk 2 miles in 40 minutes with minimal effort. You’re telling me that drivers will take 150% of walking time to cover the same distance?

  • Alexander

    Uh, the existing residents won’t need to afford the new housing. They already have housing! This would’t be displacement, it would be added supply.

    Gentrification is bad in cities where it’s hard to build the new units that market forces demand. Thankfully we don’t have that problem here.

  • jkate01234

    Thanks for sharing this informative post.
    Julia @ Moffattnichol

  • Joe Bloh

    Johnson is on of the Southern Dallas LEADERS. I’m sure he knew THEN what South Dallas needed, and what it STILL needs … “ted’

  • Joe Bloh

    If you don’t see it, you probably never will.
    Even if it was explained.

    Just trust the Council and let them Tear it down.

  • Joe Bloh

    If you are “MetroMatt” from CityData,
    you don’t even LIVE in Dallas.

    In fact, all you EVER do is put-down Dallas, and talk about how uch
    “better” houston is.

    Thus… whatever YOU say, Dallas would be smart to do THE OPPOSITE,
    since you want us to fail.

  • Stan Aten

    I wish that TXDOT would do a post card survey of the people who are using I-45 like they did when the discussion was if Central Expressway should be double decked or not. After the results of the survey, Central was widened because most users were local and not long distance. I suspect that most of the users of I-45 are commuters from Lancaster and points south of I-20 but I am not sure. Only a survey can determine the true source of the traffic.