Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

The Women of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park

The power and might of the entire federal government seemed to be aimed at the city of Memphis.

The nation’s ballyhooed interstate highway system had mapped a route due west for Interstate 40. It would plow across the state from Bristol, driving to the Mississippi River right through mid-Memphis neighborhoods and homes and levelling about 24 acres of the 170-acre Old Forest of Overton Park.

The path had been drawn in 1955 on a route that today is named Sam Cooper Boulevard and ends at East Parkway. The interstate would separate the Memphis Zoo from the rest of the city’s unique urban green space which also housed Memphis Art Academy, Brooks Art Gallery, a nine-hole golf course and amphitheater in addition to its most unusual ecological feature – the rare old-growth forest.

Local, state and federal leaders, local newspapers, even the City Beautiful Commission arrayed in full-throated support of the plan, convinced that expressways and parking garages would lure shoppers back to an emptying downtown and relieve traffic congestion.

After ignoring advice since the 1940s urging limits on eastward expansion, they had watched downtown businesses close or move, following the growth into East Memphis and suburbs.

But a cadre of determined Memphians organized to stop the destruction I-40 would cause.

They formed the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) and got busy waking the city to what the roadway would mean. While men were certainly engaged and male attorneys certainly were critical to the eventual victory, it was women who fought first and fought the fight every day — working long hours on letter-writing campaigns, filing, phone calling, raising money, consensus building with neighborhood groups and more.

It was women who urged the citizenry to get involved to prevent what local poet Agnes Bowe called “the rape of Overton Park.”

It also was the women who received the most criticism: death threats, political retribution and derisive name calling, including that infamous line about being “little old ladies in tennis shoes” meant to intimidate them and diminish their voices. That phrase really had enduring power. Wikipedia uses it to this day to describe “a group of local citizens, spearheaded by a group of elderly women dubbed the ‘little old ladies in Tennis shoes’ by multiple media outlets, (who) began a campaign to stop this construction.”

These women fought City Hall, state government, federal government, local courts, newspapers, the chamber of commerce and other powerful business interests in their determination to protect our environment and preserve neighborhoods in Midtown.

Learn their names: Rosemary Alderdyce, Betty Buchignini, Mary Evelyn Deupree, Grace Gordon, Marie Handy, Sara Naill (Sally) Hines, Martha Lackner, Lou Packer, Laura Rodenbaugh, Nadine Smith, Sunshine Kidd Snyder, Anona Stoner and Helen Witte. 

Others worked hard but were afraid to be known publicly.

CPOP president Marie Handy wrote, “The proposed route through Overton Park would not just ruin the park: It would annihilate it. That which is removed is annihilated and it is impossible to ‘restore it.’” She also said that “highways were needed for ‘progress’ but parks, created by God, for the people, should not be ignored and destroyed by men.”

Opposition to CPOP was so intense that information about many participants and donors of art and money was kept secret and anonymous for fear of harm to them or their spouses’ workplaces or careers. Some worked behind the scenes, their names never known.

Local businessman William Pollard accused the activists of having hands smeared with blood because of traffic deaths that would increase without the expressway. He quoted Bible scripture comparing expressway opponents to the mob who shouted for the head of Jesus.

Years later, a surviving CPOP leader, Sunshine Snyder, wrote for the West Tennessee Historical Society a paper titled “The Finale and True Story Behind the Scenes of ‘The Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.’” Sunshine describes the work of a loosely-knit but dedicated group, maybe 6 or 12 meeting together at a time during the mid-1960s, making signs, stuffing and stamping envelopes, organizing rallies.

Mary Evelyn Deupree, who recruited Sunshine, and Sally Hines had been fighting the expressway encroachment for years. Lou Packer led the nucleus group called the Committee for the Preservation of Overton Park in 1957 that later became CPOP legally and formally. Anona Stoner, who moved into Memphis with experience successfully organizing opposition to multi- lane highway projects in Ohio, became the defacto CPOP coordinator, willing to work 24/7 at her home answering the phone and serving as contact for donations, records and communications. She wrote letters, researched freeway opposition tactics and spoke at Memphis City Council meetings to defeat resolutions.

Sisters Martha Lackner and Laura Rodenbaugh joined early on. Young and enthusiastic, they began in 1971 to sponsor fundraising events: an art auction, a spaghetti supper, a booth at the Fairgrounds flea market, a Pink Palace event and a sale at Albertson’s.

Local news media continue to support the expressway. While news stories said the route through the park would be a 20-foot wide strip, CPOP’s Bill Deupree paid $1,000 for an ad in The Commercial Appeal explaining it would be two 20-foot strips with a median between and that an interchange on the eastern edge would take several hundred feet.

Sunshine and others put together rallies trying to get the truth out, such as one on the park’s eastern edge when Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock came to support the expressway. “My children and other children were on hand to demonstrate that the truth was that the expressway at the eastern border of the park was much, much larger and wider than had been reported. To demonstrate the true width, the children strung a roll of toilet paper the entire several hundred feet the expressway would take.” A newspaper reporter watching the kids remarked he had no idea the road would take so much of the park.

Over the next few years CPOP’s opposition held up final approval of various plans, including tunnels, walkovers, landscaping.  In the meantime, not believing a women-led grassroots organization would finally win, homes and businesses in Binghamton and just west of the park were bulldozed.

On Dec. 1, 1969, at 5:45 p.m., CPOP held a special meeting of about 10 including spouses. Local attorney Charlie Newman and Jack Vardaman with a Washington D.C. firm agreed to take the case pro bono. Gasps were heard when the lawyers said $2,000 was needed to get started but the vote to go ahead was 10-0. Bill Deupree and Sunshine’s husband James each put up $1,000. Two individuals had to be named plaintiffs beside the organization. Bill and Sunshine agreed to be named. Sunshine wrote: “This was an awesome step for so few of us….
There was not a penny in our coffers.”

CPOP lost at the district court level and again on appeal at the 6th Circuit.

CPOP appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oral arguments were heard on Jan. 11, 1971.

On March 2, 1971, the justices ruled in favor of CPOP 8-0. But the fight still wasn’t over.

CPOP’s case had shown such a mess of legal interpretations and administrative missteps that the justices sent the matter back to the West Tennessee district court who sent it to the Transportation Secretary Volpe for review “under a correct understanding of the law.” Two years later he approved a tunnel under Overton Park!

Further action on the redesign dragged on but failed. Finally, on Jan. 9, 1981, Gov. Lamar Alexander submitted a request to the federal government to cancel the route through Overton Park and release the $300 million in its construction budget to the City of Memphis for other transportation uses.

The request was approved on Jan. 16. After some 25 years, the battle for Overton Park was finally over!

The favorable Supreme Court ruling in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe is taught as a “Genesis” case about environmental law. It has been cited 28,127 times.

Today, generations of Memphians and visitors enjoy the trees, trails and fields of Overton Park.

Without the courage, determination and savvy of these women imagine: Traffic on six lanes of interstate concrete, roaring through Overton Park, with the zoo and Rhodes on the north side and a polluted forest on the south.

Even if you can imagine it in a trench, the roadway sunken out of sight — the noise and huge lights and fumes and the massive barrier of it leave animals, birds and people terrorized. It becomes the definition of unwelcome and unrelaxing. And the memory of a historic, unique urban park for solace and natural beauty and learning is only – a memory.

Let us celebrate and honor the story of the preservation of Overton Park as a dramatic account of women’s leadership and persistence that is important to know during this National Women’s History Month and always.