Dissertation Defense Announcement
The College of Arts and Sciences announces the Final Dissertation Defense of
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
October 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM in Mitchell Hall, Room 221
Advisor: Sarah Potter
The Overton Park Freeway Revolt: Urban Environmentalism, Historic Preservation, and Neighborhood Protection in Memphis, Tennessee, 1956-2016
ABSTRACT: This study contributes to our understanding of postwar environmental politics through an examination of the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park's (CPOP's) grassroots anti-freeway activism in Memphis, Tennessee from 1956 to 2016. CPOP used environmental legislation, a lengthy court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and historic preservation laws to successfully stop the construction of a freeway through Overton Park. This dissertation argues that CPOP, an organization of white, middle-class homeowners, worked to both protect the public greenspace of Overton Park and, paradoxically, to simultaneously preserve their neighborhoods' white, middle-class status. Rather than liberal do-gooders, they are better understood as activists with a variety of complex loyalties. They sought to protect the character and property values of their neighborhoods by saving a park that primarily benefited white Memphians. Likewise, they used state resources to combat what they viewed as growing state power. Ultimately, this study reveals the ways a seemingly progressive battle to stop freeway construction also served to preserve white space in a black majority city. This understudied event in Memphis history illuminates crucial questions about postwar American urban and environmental histories by bringing these two typically disparate fields together. These literatures ask similar questions about how people attempted to control and shape spaces in order to improve their environment, but they rarely consider the possibility that their concerns might overlap. By unpacking the broader racial and class ramifications of this struggle against the freeway, I explore how activists' definitions of healthy public space privileged their own status as the stakeholders most invested in this struggle. I also unite the scholarship on historic preservation with academic works on neighborhood defense and environmental activism by examining historic preservation's role in combating freeway construction, mediating integration, and starting neighborhood-level revitalization campaigns. Finally, this dissertation will add to the growing scholarship on post-1968 Memphis; it builds upon the recent trend of analyzing grassroots political activity, but also inserts urban environmental activism, historic preservation, and neighborhood defense into the literature.