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The story behind the giant Roxbury Community College banner, and the activist history it celebrates

A banner on the side of a Roxbury Community College building reads: “If It Wasn’t For Community Activism, You’d Be On A Highway Right Now.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Along Southwest Corridor Park, people can find dog parks, lush greenery, playgrounds, basketball courts, amphitheaters, and space for bikers and walkers to harmoniously travel. When the weather is warm, locals ditch the train and opt to commute by foot, populating the lively 4.1-mile-long linear park from Jamaica Plain to Back Bay.

En route, walkers pass Roxbury Community College at the intersection of Tremont Street and Columbus Avenue by the Roxbury Crossing Orange Line T stop. What is usually just a regular brick wall, the side of RCC’s media arts center is now home to a massive banner that reads, “If It Wasn’t For Community Activism, You’d Be On A Highway Right Now.”

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The banner, college officials say, is a reminder to locals of the history of community activism that made this vibrant park possible, instead of the Southwest Expressway, a proposed 8-mile extension of Interstate 95 from Canton to the South End in 1972. And additionally, without the same activists, RCC would not exist.

“Community activism is who we are, it’s our history, it’s how we came into being, and what that means is we have a unique and very special place among the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts,” Jackie Jenkins-Scott, interim president of Roxbury Community College, said. “I think our history of community activism is what sets Roxbury Community College apart.”

Then-Massachusetts Governor Francis W. Sargent’s decision to halt work on the Southwest Expressway sparked an intense local, grass-roots movement among community members who had strong opinions about what would replace the partially carved-out highway. One 1969 rally known as “People Before Highways” on Boston Common by the Massachusetts State House brought together 2,000 demonstrators.

Jenkins-Scott said that these same revolutionaries laid in the street, protesting, and ultimately cultivated the opening of Roxbury Community College through their activism in 1973.

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“With everything that is going on in the country now, we don’t take the time to recognize the people who literally laid in the streets for this college to be here,” Jenkins-Scott said. “We need this banner to remind us all that we are the sum of our history.”

Despite Sargent’s ultimate decision to turn the space originally designated for the freeway expansion into a walking path, some residents were still displaced during the preliminary stages of highway construction. More than 500 homes and businesses were destroyed in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and the South End.

Karilyn Crockett, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author of “People Before Highways,” told the Globe that the anti-highway movement helped forge a generation of local civic leaders, including Fred Salvucci, who became Massachusetts transportation secretary, and Gloria Fox, who served about 30 years as a state representative.

The roots of the highway expansion initiative can be traced back to a 1948 master highway plan for the Greater Boston area, which was bolstered by federal legislation in 1956 to have the federal government, not the state, shoulder the cost of the expanded freeway.

Jenkins-Scott said that many other cities across the nation did utilize these resources, but it was because of community activists that neighborhoods like Roxbury were safeguarded from an expressway. Reflecting on community activists who have passed this year, Jenkins-Scott said that the future of Boston relies on community members understanding the past.

“In the last few months, we’ve lost Mel King and Professor Charles Ogletree, two giants in Boston,” Jenkins-Scott said. “Each of them had a very special place in this city, and losing them reminds us that we have to honor the hard work and the commitment that people put into building institutions and building community because that is what it’s all about.”

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Maggie Scales can be reached at maggie.scales@globe.com. Follow her @scales_maggie.