On this day in 1985, on Highway 69 in Texas, the first-ever Adopt-a-Highway sign went up.
The year before, writes History.com, “James Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, noticed litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck he was following in Tyler, Texas.” It cost the government a significant amount of money to keep roadways clean, and Evans thought the community could help. It took a while to get the project off the ground, but eventually Tyler Civitan Club committed to picking up trash on a two-mile stretch of road.
Other groups quickly followed, and for the most part, the history of this program has been a positive one. But conflict arose in the state of Missouri in the 1990s when the Ku Klux Klan applied to adopt a section of highway outside St. Louis. In 1994, writes rumor-debunking site Snopes, when the Klan first applied, the Missouri Department of Transportation rejected the organization. The rejection was made on the grounds that “under the federal Civil Rights Act, it could refuse the use of federal money to ‘further or subsidize racial discrimination.’”
But refusing the hate group the right to sponsor part of the highway was unconstitutional, according to a U.S. District Court judge. The state's appeal was also rejected, after which “the state had to erect signs announcing the Klan’s sponsorship of a portion of I-55,” Snopes writes.
At that time, though, the Missouri legislature responded by voting to name the part of the highway that the Klan had adopted the “Rosa Parks Highway.” The case later went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear Missouri’s appeal, cementing the legal legitimacy of the Klan’s right to participate in the program. However, Snopes writes, the Klan failed to actually pick up any trash, and was dropped in 2000.
A similar case played out in Georgia starting in 2012, when Klan members there also tried to adopt a section of highway. In 2016, after the Georgia Supreme Court dismissed Georgia’s appeal, the state opted to temporarily suspend their Adopt-a-Highway program, writes Lindsey Conway for The Red & Black.
As of this story’s publication, the program remains suspended and is not accepting new participants, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s website.
The KKK argues that denying members of their organization the opportunity to participate in the program violates their constitutional rights and all they want to do is “clean up the doggone road,” Georgia member Harley Hanson told Lindsey Bever for The Washington Post. "We're not going to be out there in robes," Bever said.
In its original letter rejecting the Klan’s application, the state Department of Transportation stated that the road had a speed limit of 65 mph and so was not safe for volunteers.
Plus, “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause significant public concern,” the letter reads. “Impacts include safety of the travelling public, potential social unrest, driver distraction, or interference with the flow of traffic.”