The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Non-Violent Protest and Transportation

Photo via United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, we ask, “How does the US history of segregation and Jim Crow impact today’s transportation systems?”

Transportation infrastructure allows people to get to school and work and to access food, faith and family. It’s central to our day-to-day lives. Throughout history, it’s no surprise, then, that highways, buses, bridges, and streets have been blockaded, boycotted, and utilized as platforms for non-violent protest and civil disobedience. To occupy these places is to disrupt the day-to-day and to make others to take notice.

Transportation and protest

In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King after Rosa Parks and 15 yr-old Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up their seats on the bus, emboldened a mass of people to unify in ensuring that all people had the right to use the bus as equals. This type of nonviolent organizing led all the way to the Supreme Court to rule that segregation is unconstitutional, and it catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking to that transportation legacy of Dr. King, there are now over 900 streets and other pieces of transportation infrastructure named after him, like our very own Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, a bus rapid transit line, travels nine miles from Downtown Pittsburgh to Rankin via Shadyside, East Liberty, Homewood, Edgewood, and Wilkinsburg.

Pittsburgh’s history of racism in transportation stoked the need for black people to create their own systems for mobility. Jitney cabs were necessary as white-owned cab companies refused to service the Hill District. August Wilson’s 8th play in the Pittsburgh Cycle, Jitney, is set in 1977 Hill District when businesses, including the cab station, were shut down for “urban renewal.” Further isolating the black community in the Hill District was the construction of the highway to move people (mostly suburbanites) right through the community instead of into the community. Such is the case of the Northside and other neighborhoods around Pittsburgh and across the country. This type of construction was no accident.

“We looked at total household displacement from the first 20 years of the construction of the interstate system and we found that a majority of people displaced were people of color,” remarked US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, March 30, 2016.

Transportation and violence

Our streets constantly put people in harm’s way. From encouraging people to speed, to providing a convenient place for place for racial profiling… Let us not forget that Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher and too many others were originally stopped in traffic.

This past week, Smart Growth America released their Dangerous By Design report which detailed where fatal collisions happened between 2005 and 2014, and the people who are most vulnerable. What they discovered was that “racial disparities persist after controlling for varying walking rates among different demographics.” How bad are those disparities? “The pedestrian fatality rate for Native Americans is nearly five times higher than for white Americans, and for African Americans the rate is nearly twice as high.”

Why do Native Americans and African Americans face disproportionately unsafe conditions when compared with white Americans? Part of the answer is due to people historically not getting a say in how the streets were designed that were run through their communities.

Moving forward

Our nation’s streets, bridges, ports and buses have been used by activists for peaceful protest to promote change for a more equitable society. We need to hold the people in charge of our transportation systems accountable to equitably serve all users, as we continue to work toward an equitable and affordable Pittsburgh.

Whose streets? Our streets! 

  • There are 1,298 miles of Pittsburgh streets
  • They constitute 50% of the public space in the City of Pittsburgh
  • They make up 10% of the entire city
  • 63% of the streets are controlled (held in public trust) by City
  • 36% of the streets controlled (held in public trust) by PennDOT
  • 1% (mostly if not all bridges) are controlled (held in public trust) by County



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