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Anti-freeway activist Cassell speaks at Eastern High: 1968 | by Washington Area Spark
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Anti-freeway activist Cassell speaks at Eastern High: 1968

Charles Cassell, speaking as vice-chair of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, blasts proposed freeway construction at a meeting at Eastern High School March 24, 1968.


Cassell warned of potential violence if freeway construction proceeded to destroy black communities.


The battle over freeways versus Metro took many twists and turns over the years, but in December 1971 Congress over-road Rep. William Natcher’s (D-Ky.) House District Appropriations Committee and approved funds for Metro without any highway construction.


Charles Cassell biography (excerpted from a longer profile by Alice Bonner published in the Washington Post :


Charles Cassell grew up in a house designed by his father near Howard University in Washington, D.C.


“After graduating from Dunbar High School, he followed his father's wish and entered architecture school at Cornell in 1942. But two years later, he was drafted into the Army. He served his conscription ‘in the most dangerous theater of all: southern USA.’ where he said his race consciousness crystallized.


"’In the '40s, that was not the safest place for a black person to be,’ Cassell said. ‘In the South, a black man could die just for a look. Sometimes I wanted so badly to be overseas where it was safer.’


“After World War II, Charles Cassell finished his training at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and returned to Washington and a rather ordinary life as husband and father, involved in civic associations and working as an architect for the Veterans Administration and the General Services Administration.


“It all changed when he met [Julius] Hobson in 1962 and joined him on the picket lines to speak for the poor and downtrodden.


"’We were constantly--Hobson, Doug Moore, Marion Barry--out there on the front line, testifying, demonstrating against a variety of things that we thought worked to the disadvantage’ of city residents, he said.


“Cassell and many others ‘integrated all sorts of things,’ stopped the freeways that had disrupted black neighborhoods, blocked the building of the Three Sisters bridge, and challenged the FCC license of WMAL-TV, which effectively opened up television newscasts to black reporters and anchors.


“He is a man with intense pride in black culture and history, given to quoting King, Malcolm X and Paul Robeson.


“His ego is ‘the best thing I got going for me . . . and that lack of apology is what white folks can't deal with, or even your black opponents. Why should you apologize for it?’


“He concedes, though, that ‘sometimes my ego is misdirected, sometimes it gets me into trouble, but that's because it's used improperly, not because you shouldn't have it.’"


“In the late '60s and early '70s, Cassell often made headlines by interrupting City Council meetings with his own agenda, urging welfare activists to ‘disrupt’ Council deliberations, and leading school children in antiwar demonstrations.


“He won the school board seat by two votes in a run-off election in 1968, and afterward lost races for congressional delegate in 1972, for reelection to the school board in 1973 and for at-large city councilman in 1976.


“Absalom Jordan Jr., who met Cassell when Cassell cochaired the Black United Front with Stokely Carmichael in 1968, finds him ‘competent, sensitive, and knowledgeable,’ but unelectable because he is ‘an antagonist to the white power structure. People saw what he did on the school board and it scared them.’"


“Julius Hobson Jr. said he likes and admires Cassell for his firmness on issues, but "I'm just not sure if he was able to make the kind of personality change and compromises" necessary to win votes, he said.


“Cassell insists he is ‘not a politician. I never wanted to be mayor. . . . Otherwise I wouldn't have done the things I did that in effect antagonized the kind of support you need to run for political office.’


“He said his election failures are insignificant because he ‘did something more valuable than getting one lonely voice in public office. . . . Each political office I ran for was . . . an opportunity to push the concept of statehood. That's always been my purpose.’


"’I like the fact that I don't have to answer to anybody,’ said Cassell, who claims to be the proud inheritor of Hobson's methods. ‘I can say what I want, when I want. That's a great freedom.’


For more information and related images, see


Photo by Rosemary Martufi. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

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Taken on March 24, 1968