“We shall not be moved!”: Urban Renewal and the Civil Rights Movement
Urban renewal is a program of land redevelopment to address urban decay in cities: slums are cleared out while opportunities for higher-class housing, businesses and other developments are created. On the surface, this process seems to be a net benefit for decaying areas. However, urban renewal plans and racial injustice seem to be intertwined.
In the past, urban renewal and other housing projects in the United States have often targeted majorly black neighborhoods. These areas, already stricken by the effects of redlining (the discriminatory practice in which black and low-income neighborhoods are often classified as “hazardous” to investment, resulting in the systematic denial and lack of amenities and proper financial infrastructure) and other zoning laws, were delivered a final blow when faced with renewal. Most black families living in the Jim Crow Era South, for example, earned starvation wages and could not possibly pay for the upgrades that would be made to their homes. They were allowed to take out a loan, but repaying it required sufficient income, which most Southern black families lacked. Federal subsidies were often not used to support these families but to cover the costs of demolishing, razing and private development. For most of these families, urban renewal meant displacement and “black removal,” as the famous James Baldwin quote goes.
Newtown, a neighborhood in Monroe, North Carolina, was subjected to one of these urban renewal projects. Historically a black railroad worker town, the town was deemed undesirable for white people to live in due to the falling cinder from the air. In 1959, Newtown was designated as a “slum area” in an effort to hasten renewal. The desire for renewal came from the fact that the working-class nature of the town had long vanished. A highway now resided near Newtown, with white businesses nearby, making it desirable for investments and white residencies. Newtown was to be razed to make way for an industrial park with surrounding up-to-standard housing. The houses built by generations of black workers would need to be upgraded to standard at the residents’ expense
Enter Robert F. Williams, civil rights leader and president of the NAACP Monroe chapter. An outspoken civil rights activist, Williams vehemently retaliated against segregation in Monroe and promoted armed Black self-defense. From 1959 to 1960, Williams wrote about and protested Monroe’s proposed urban renewal project in his magazine, The Crusader. Calling it a “land grab” and a “white plot against black property owners,” Williams conflated property renewal with racial issues, which caused him to be excluded from town meetings discussing the project, since other residents feared he would only cause obstruction. Williams called for action, worried that the substandard housing codes would only affect the black-owned property. Consequently, he was concerned about what would happen to the black families who could not pay for the renewal. Would they be displaced, and where and how would they start a new home, considering their meager earnings?
Williams called on Newtown to resist the renewal project. He thought it to be foolish to think that the standard of living for these black families could be raised without considering that “a good 95%” of them had substandard incomes. Furthermore, the fact that during the Jim Crow South, black people were strictly barred from jobs that paid more than starvation wages also alarmed Williams, considering there would be no possibility of ever paying for the upgrade directly or paying back any loan used for that purpose. Williams also harnessed anxieties about what would happen after the project. Would white outsiders move in and drive the black populace out while bringing in local businesses from which the latter are barred from? For them, it would mean leaving their houses to commute daily to work or find decent employment.
Eventually, the program was approved, and displaced families would become federal and Monroe’s responsibility, but Williams continued to call for resistance: “unless we ban together, and stand up and fight, it will be too late!” It is unknown how the families ended up after the project was carried out. Meanwhile, Williams invested his efforts elsewhere, for example, into black displacement in Atlanta.
Urban renewal and the ensuing displacement have often destabilized nonwhite communities and undermined their access to opportunity, burdening them with lasting detrimental effects still visible today. Gentrification – the process of changing the character of a poor urban area into an affluent one – is seen as a consequence of urban renewal since rehabilitated areas usually offer higher-class housing that attracts people with higher buying power and leads to the rise of property values. These elements, in turn, cause an increase in rent and taxes. As a result, gentrified areas often leave marginalized low-income families displaced, replaced by wealthier and mostly white residents. With President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan and the administration’s efforts concerning Environmental Justice to reverse the Trump administration’s policies, the fight against displacement caused by urban renewal and gentrification, albeit slimmed down, has been reinvigorated. However, since the dawn of his term, Biden has already faced resistance against his goals, as evident by the obstruction in Congress.
This From the Vaults article was written using the following microfilm reels available at the RIAS: The Black Power Movement: The Papers of Robert F. Williams: Reels 9 and 10.
And the following secondary source available at the RIAS: Rethinking the Environmental Justice Movement post-1945 by Ellen Griffith Spears (New York, 2020).
And the following external online data: “Renewing Inequality” project at the University of Richmond, the 1950 U.S. Census and “Tearing Down Black America” on the Boston Review.