All across the state of Missouri, thousands of miles of highway are sponsored and maintained by volunteers. But one stretch outside St. Louis has a somewhat dubious claim to fame. According to the signs, it has been adopted by the Ku Klux Klan. But officials aren’t taking this development lying down.
The Adopt-A-Highway scheme was introduced in Missouri in 1987 as a way for the state’s Department of Transportation to cut down on costs. Apparently, by handing responsibility for tidying and beautifying some of the state’s 34,000 miles of highway over to volunteers, it is able to save around $1 million every year.
According to the scheme’s website, adopters are able take their pick from a selection of responsibilities. Apparently, they can mow the grass, pick up litter, do landscaping or plant native flowers and grasses. In return, the Department of Transportation will erect signs bearing the adopting group’s name.
At the moment, some 5,000 groups made up of over 50,000 volunteers take part in the scheme. And they typically consist of civic organizations, commercial enterprises, non-profits and individual citizens. However, in 1994 a more unusual group applied to adopt a section of Interstate 55.
Crossing the United States from LaPlace, Louisiana, in the south to Chicago, Illinois, in the north, Interstate 55 stretches for almost 1,000 miles across the country. But it was a small section of this highway, located south of the city of St. Louis, that found itself at the heart of a controversy when a member of the Ku Klux Klan applied to join the Adopt-A-Highway scheme.
Founded back in 1865 the Ku Klux Klan has existed in a number of different incarnations over the years. However, its focus has always been on promoting ideas of white supremacy and encouraging racist behavior and ideas. Unsurprisingly, this had made the organization less than popular in modern times.
Nonetheless, a few desperate individuals still cling to the outdated beliefs of the Klan. In fact, it’s estimated that some 5,000 people across the United States are still active members of the group. And it was one of these that, in the early 1990s, decided to adopt a stretch of Interstate 55 in the name of the KKK.
However, Missouri’s Department of Transportation rejected the proposal outright. Apparently, the department believed that it was completely within its rights to refuse the Klan’s offer. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act, it claimed, it was entitled to withhold federal funds from any activity that might “further or subsidize racial discrimination,” according to Snopes.com.
The Klan were not persuaded by this justification, however. And after a lengthy legal battle, the Department of Transportation’s actions were deemed unconstitutional by a District Court judge. Although the state government disagreed with the decision, the Klan was granted permission to proceed with the adoption in November 1999.
But just two months later, this arrangement was already looking shaky. According to reports, the section of highway sponsored by the Klan had lain neglected since the group had taken over responsibility for its upkeep. Concerned, the state consequently issued a warning, stating that the organization would be dropped from the scheme if it failed to keep up its side of the bargain.
However, a Klan member stepped in shortly before the appointed deadline, collecting the required equipment and training material at the last minute. And by March 2000 it seemed as if the Klan might have won. To their dismay, Missouri officials found themselves forced to erect signs bearing the group’s name along Interstate 55. The local authorities did not take their defeat lying down, though. Instead, they exercised their right to rename the Klan’s stretch of highway however they saw fit.
In a hilarious blow to the racist ideology of the Klan, the Missouri Legislature opted to dub the road the Rosa Parks Highway in honor of the famous activist. Born in Alabama in 1913, Parks became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement when she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger.
Although she was arrested for her troubles, Parks’ act of defiance led to the black community in Montgomery, AL, boycotting the entire city’s bus network. And as the Civil Rights Movement gained traction across the country, her unwillingness to submit to segregation transformed her into an international symbol of resistance.
Although Parks died in Detroit, Michigan, in 2005, her name will forever be associated with the struggle for equal rights in the U.S. And all across the country, her legacy is reflected in the various streets, buildings and awards that bear her name. Moreover, before she passed away, she got to hear about the strange, Klan-sponsored stretch of highway that shares this honor.
According to reports, Parks was asked her opinion on the official name change, which took place in May 2000. “It’s always nice to be thought of,” she is reported to have said, according to the Women’s eNEWS website. However, members of the Klan did not share her positive attitude. In fact, Thomas Robb, a national director of the controversial group, was reported by the Chicago Tribune to have referred to the decision as being nothing short of a betrayal.
However, Jerry Nachtigal, a spokesman for the state’s governor, indicated that the decision had likely been made in order to poke fun at the racist group. “I think the governor appreciates the irony of the KKK picking up trash along the Rosa Parks Highway,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “But regardless of how it’s done, honoring Rosa Parks is a very noble thing to do.”
But in March 2001 the state of Missouri lost another appeal against the decision to let the Klan sponsor a stretch of road. Instead, it decided to focus on the fact that the group was neglecting its responsibilities and leaving the highway untended.
Eventually, officials issued an ultimatum to the Klan: either take responsibility for cleaning and tidying its section of road, or face being dropped. And when there was no response, the authorities followed through on their threats. So today, the section of highway is no longer under the sponsorship of one of America’s most notorious hate groups.
According to Robb, though, the Klan allegedly wouldn’t be losing any sleep over the decision. In fact, he was reported as saying that the group had already intended to cease its sponsorship arrangement. Apparently, the individual who had first applied for the scheme was no longer interested in being involved. But was that just the organization’s way of attempting to downplay the embarrassment that the incident had caused it?
In 2012 history looked set to repeat itself when another group of Klan members tried to adopt a stretch of highway in Georgia under a similar scheme. But rather than prolong the controversy, the state instead opted to suspend its Adopt-A-Highway program temporarily. And according to the Georgia Department of Transportation, that policy remains in place to this day.