American Portraits

The Case of Max Morris and Urban Renewal: Integrity in Washington, D.C.

In this lesson, students will learn how Max Morris acted with integrity to try to save his business and his neighborhood from the effects of an urban renewal plan. Though he ultimately was unsuccessful, Morris boldly challenged what he believed to be an unconstitutional taking of his property.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Property Rights image

Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

Narrative

In the context of diseases, a “blight” refers to an infection that overtakes living organisms, specifically plants. Leaves wither and drop off, branches stop growing, and, if untreated, the plant will not only die, but the disease will spread and kill nearby vegetation as well. “Urban blight” refers to the decay of buildings and deterioration of neighborhoods that result from a number of causes, including overcrowding, an increase in criminal activity, and lack of proper maintenance of the structures. In 1945, in order to correct blighted areas in Washington, D.C., Congress passed the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act, which created the five-member District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) and gave it the power of eminent domain. After conducting surveys to identify neighborhoods in need of beautification, rebuilding, and “revitalization,” the RLA published its plan in 1950 to take over property in the District’s southwest quadrant, starting with bulldozing the 76-acre Project Area B….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

What is the value of integrity in times of crisis and difficulty?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how Max Morris acted with integrity to try to save his business and his neighborhood from the effects of an urban renewal plan. Though he ultimately was unsuccessful, Morris boldly challenged what he believed to be an unconstitutional taking of his property.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Max Morris’s character as a businessman and community member.
  • Students will examine Morris’s demonstration of integrity and commitment to truth.
  • Students will understand why integrity is an essential virtue in their own lives.
  • Students will act with integrity even when they face a tough struggle.

Background

With respect to property rights, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” It has long been recognized that the government has the legal power to take private property when necessary. For example, if a community needs a new road, park, or school, but the best location for that new facility is private property, the government may force the owner to sell the property in order to benefit the common good. The Fifth Amendment’s “Takings Clause” ensures that the government must deal with the property owner fairly.

Vocabulary

  • Eminent domain
  • Takings Clause
  • Blight
  • Deterioration
  • Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA)
  • Revitalization
  • Slum
  • Urban renewal
  • Racial harmony
  • Patrons
  • Comprehensive
  • Substandard
  • Litigation
  • Executor
  • Unanimous
  • Dismay
  • Legislature
  • Judiciary
  • Police power
  • Municipal
  • Disreputable
  • Suffocate
  • Discretion
  • Just compensation

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did Max Morris demonstrate integrity to seek to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What did Max Morris understand his identity to be and how did that affect his contribution to his neighborhood?
  • What did Max Morris understand his purpose to be in the controversy related to the urban renewal plan for the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Allen, Charlotte. “A Wreck of a Plan” The Washington Post, July 17, 2005.
  • Levy, Robert A., and William Mellor. The Dirty Dozen. Washington, D.C.: The Cato Institute, 2009
  • Supreme Court Document-Based Questions, Volume 2, The Bill of Rights Institute, 2013.

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