On June 29, retired Army Gen. Colin Powell was the honored speaker at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s 50th anniversary of the interstate system dinner. He spoke highly of the vision President Dwight D. Eisenhower had in building a network of roadways that would move people and commerce efficiently across the U.S. He spoke of the courage that was required to travel into the Deep South in the 1950s and ’60s as a minority and how the establishment of the interstate system helped turn an ugly trend of racism. His parting words served as a call to action, a call for a new interstate system, one that would keep the U.S. on top of a new global economy.
An excerpt of his inspirational and motivational speech to the transportation industry is below. The entire message can be viewed at www.roadsbridges.com (Go to “Quick Search,” scroll to “News” and type in “Powell inspires transportation industry”).
It had a special meaning for me as a black man. In those days, a black person traveling in this country had to plan their travels very carefully. Once you got off the western end and the southern end of the Jersey Turnpike, you better have everything you need if you were going into the Deep South. You’d better have a cousin living somewhere along the way in the Carolinas that you could stay at, because there wouldn’t be a convenient motel. And you’d better have a picnic basket full of food because there were so many restaurants that would not serve you.
In my early days in the army with my new wife, we traveled from the end of the Jersey Turnpike down to the Fort Benning, Ga., area and to Birmingham, Ala. And in those days there were only two places that we can remember that a black person could find a bed for the night, the motel in South Carolina and there was another hotel on the western route in Bristol, Tenn. Just imagine that. It isn’t ancient history; it’s my generation. It’s my lifetime. It’s my personal experience and the personal experience of my family.
There was a time when I could be heading to Vietnam and driving down Rte. 1 to Woodridge, Va., just 20 minutes from [Washington, D.C.], where you couldn’t stop to relieve yourself at a gas station because of the nature of our society at that time.
1956, the year that Eisenhower signed this historical bill, also was the year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. It was the beginning of the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.
And over the years that followed, a revolution took place in our country, a revolution that said if we would live the dream that our founding fathers had, then all of us had to be equal.
And I remember so vividly in a personal way, as does my wife and my children, how the country started to respond to that. And to a large extent, the opening of accommodations for people, the ability to go into any restaurant that you wanted to, really focused on those interstate highway systems.
You knew that as you drove down I-85 or I-95 now, you could pull off anywhere and you could go into a Holiday Inn or a Howard Johnson or the pancake house and you would be served just as anyone else would be served. It was an interstate system. It was a national system. It helped bring this country back together again. It helped move us into a better place in our national life and in our national history.
You may think that I am stretching the argument, but I’m not, because I remember vividly as a young officer the difference between traveling without the interstate and traveling with the interstate. And so the interstate had so many effects on us in so many different ways. It made this an incredibly better country.
Ike was concerned about a Soviet empire that was putting at risk everything we believed in and which we stood for. We built armies, we built alliances, we built fences and walls and we built highways. They built armies and fences and walls, but they couldn’t build highways. They didn’t have that vision. They didn’t have that ability. They didn’t have that concept. They didn’t have that dream of what could be.
The world is seeking to operate on playing fields, not battlefields, and playing fields where the games are economics; where the United States is now in competition, not with a Soviet empire, but with the economy of China and the economy of India and the economy of the European Union; a world where we are competing for energy because it is energy that is fueling the growth in these nations that used to be our enemies and are no longer our enemies, but our economic competitors.
What we have above all though is vision. What we have that will keep us in front is a willingness to take risk. What we have that will allow us to prevail in this 21st century is that entrepreneurial spirit, that belief in things that are not yet seen, things that are still unknown, the kind of belief that Dwight David Eisenhower had in 1956. He could not have imagined everything that was going to be brought about by the interstate highway system. But he knew it was the right thing for that time.
And now the interstate highway system is 50 years old. And what do we need? We need a new vision. We need a new vision for a new world. We need a vision that expands our surface infrastructure. We need a vision that is prepared to invest. We need a Congress that is willing to invest. We need political leaders who may not see perfectly in the dim mirror what is ahead, but as we bring to the cause the same kind of passion, the same kind of belief in our system that Dwight Eisenhower did 50 years ago.
It is your challenge. It is your responsibility. This great association [the American Road & Transportation Builders Association] exists for the purpose of making that case for our business leaders to our workers to our political leaders that the best is yet to come. And that we have built this wonderful system, but now we must not only maintain it, it has to be expanded. It is that capacity, and that capacity has to be increased.
And it’ll only be increased and we will only seize this future and seize these opportunities that are before us if we come up with a vision that is as far reaching and historic as the vision that President Eisenhower came up with.
Can we do it? Sure, we can. We’re Americans. We’ve always believed in our ability to do anything that we put our mind and hearts to.
And so on this 50th anniversary of the signing of this legislation, on the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system and the means by which we fund that system, let us rededicate ourselves and let this organization rededicate itself to the prospect that we have another 50 years of hard work in front of us.
And none of us can quite see what it will look like 50 years from now, but we know that if we apply ourselves now, if we do the right things now, if we take on the challenge now, our children and grandchildren will thank us for it. And let that be the motivating force behind this association.