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Fifty years ago today…

Proposed route of Interstate 40 through Overton Park

Fifty years ago today, Overton Park’s future was decided in the Supreme Court of the United States.

On March 2, 1971, after well over a decade of battling local, state, and federal officials, a group of activists called the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park won a victory that halted plans to extend Interstate 40 through the park. The Court found that the Secretary of Transportation could only use federal funds to construct a highway in a public park if no feasible and prudent alternative existed, and after undertaking all possible planning to minimize harm.

Although the government continued to explore ways to construct the highway through the park, it ultimately elected to re-route the road. Overton Park, and its place in the heart of the Memphis community, were saved.

The unlikely success of a group of citizens fighting for their park is the reason Overton Park exists today. Indeed, it’s the reason Overton Park Conservancy exists–to harness the power of the community to protect this treasured space.

Overton Park–and the people who have fought for it over the years–are worth celebrating, and we’re planning a full year of just that. We’ll share more in the coming weeks, but today, there are a wealth of ways to learn more and celebrate this momentous day in Overton Park’s history.

  • The Memphis Public Library houses an extraordinary collection of documents regarding the I-40 controversy. The introductory text is available online and provides an overview of how the fight went from persuasion to legal battle.
  • We’ve pulled a few items from those archives to share today. (The complete collection is available in the Memphis Room at the Benjamin P. Hooks Central Library.) Here’s a 1970 article from Architecture Memphis, an almost-eulogy from a time when it appeared that “the die is cast and the park’s demise is inevitable.”
  • The 1971 booklet “Overton Park is YOUR Park, Memphis!” is a thorough accounting by CPOP member Irma O. Sternberg of all the group was up against, from federal highway policy to local media suppressing the voices of the conservationists.
  • Read The Commercial Appeal’s look at how the scuttling of the highway project may have saved Midtown. Can’t see this subscriber-only article? You can still check out 100-plus park photos from the CA archives here.
  • Read former Conservancy team member Brooks Lamb’s piece in the Daily Memphian about who really saved Overton Park.
  • Revisit the 2016 PBS documentary “10 Parks That Changed America,” which explores how the Overton Park case spared far more public spaces than just ours.
  • Are you an attorney looking for CLE hours? This afternoon the University of Memphis hosts a seminar, “The Case That Saved Overton Park,” with Charles Newman, the attorney who tried the case at the Supreme Court. You can register here.