JP History: 50 Years of People Before Highways Activism Celebrated at State House

On Jan. 25, 1969, residents assembled at the State House to protest the extension of I-95 through greater Boston and ask that Gov. Sargent rethink his decision to support the highway. They were successful, saving thousands of homes and small businesses from being divided by the highway.

On Jan. 25, 2019, 50 years later, residents once again gathered at the State House to celebrate the anniversary of their victory. They held posters and signs to show support for the work that was done, and though there were several new faces, many of the original protestors came back for the anniversary with smiles on their faces.

Everyone then headed inside the State House for a program led by Rep. Russell Holmes. The program featured words from original protestors like Anne Hershfang and Chuck Turner, as well as Kailyn Crockett, author of “People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making,” and Rep. Nika Elugardo, among others.

“Fifty years ago on this very day, at this very building, activists from across the region came together to raise their voices,” Crockett said to a packed crowd at the bottom of the Grand Stair Case at the State House. To a rousing round of applause, she added, “We are not finished yet.”

Crockett said that the idea behind this 50th anniversary was to have 50 people come because they wanted to have one person for each year of activism and memory, but the crowd exceeded 50. “This is not a small event, this is not a small moment. This is not a small crowd or a small history,” she said. “We are here today to celebrate and honor an incredibly long legacy of organizing activism and grassroots power.”

There is a plaque outside the Roxbury Crossing orange line station depicting the Southwest Corridor and the history of the planned highway development. Across the top is a list of all of the names of the original activists, which Crockett and Lou Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network read out loud during the program.

“It is amazing, almost emotional, to recognize the power that’s in this room,” Crockett said. She said that though many of the people on the list have passed, the power and spirit of their work and commitment is “very much alive in this room.”

Activists Chuck Turner and Ann Hershfang were, according to Crockett, the keynote speakers for the program, because “they were people who were so instrumental in the building movement that made the highway opposition and the power around…as strong as it was,” she said.

“From my perspective, the fight was really a memorable fight because I think it was the first time outside of war and poverty that people from different neighborhoods came together, that activists stood up and said we have to struggle with others,” Turner said in his remarks. He said that the original protest was the first time he can remember community activists being joined by city officials, business people, and environmentalists to work together on bettering the city.

“It was an opportunity for us to come together and say let’s do it together by sharing our minds and our energies,” he added. “We are in a challenging time,” he said. “There are some fights that we can’t afford to lose.”

Hershfang’s words focused on what happened back in the 1960s during the original protests. Hershfang said that she was part of the original group that opposed the South End Bypass, which was a four lane highway and Orange Line track that was going to go through the South End. She spoke of how she and the rest of the group, though generally ignored and without power, overcame those above them.

She also spoke of the plaque outside Roxbury Crossing, saying that putting the names across the top was Lew Finfer’s idea. “He wanted the students at Roxbury Community College to get off the train, the orange line, go by that plaque, and realize that people just like them had defeated these highways and the government didn’t give it to us. We got it,” she said.

Rep. Elugardo said that they were there to remember the power of organizing. “Because organizing isn’t just powerful to stop highways. Organizing protects affordable housing, organizing wins elections, organizing plants the seeds of justice but it also bears the fruit of  justice and it demands that that justice is for every single person,” she said. Elugardo also said that the torch should be passed to younger generations so they are empowered to organize as well. “A lot of times people are experiencing the darkness of our times, but we have to remember that that’s when our lights shine the brightest,” she added.

At the end of the program, everyone gathered for a group photo and placed flowers beneath the portrait of Gov. Francis Sargent. Crockett summed up the general feeling of the program and what it represented: “These are living legends, fighters, people in our community who are here, who are talking to us, who are still nurturing so many dreams and visions for what is to be.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.