Streets connect us and define our humanity. Their names tell us where we work, where we play, and where we live. Streets dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. do all these things as well, but they also bring to life some of the successes—and continuing struggles—America faces in the civil rights arena.
Derek Alderman, professor and department head of geography at UT is a specialist on streets named for King. Alderman is a cultural and historical geographer; he looks into how places are used to express culture and commemorate the past, and how these places become important.
When Alderman began his research on streets named after King in mid-1990s, he looked at three things:
“How many streets are named for King, and where are they located nationally? What struggles do African-Americans face when trying to commemorate King in cities? And what are the specific locations of streets named after King within a city, and what does this say about the struggles African-Americans face in memorializing the American civil rights movement?”
Alderman’s research shows that more than 900 streets are named after King. These streets are in forty states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and the streets are densely clustered in the southeastern United States.
“About 70 percent of streets named for King are found in the southeastern states. That shouldn’t be surprising; the Southeast was the major location for the civil rights battle,” Alderman said.
Although the number of streets dedicated to King continues to grow, the controversy surrounding renaming a street in his memory remains.
“I believe early proponents of honoring King with street names thought it would be an easier and less costly way of making King’s name visible to everyone in the city, but they found out it could be just as controversial,” said Alderman.
The opposition comes mainly from the desire to protect one’s turf.
“Street names are powerful symbols of identity, and some people are very unwilling to give up that identity. It’s about protecting space, which can be a racial issue,” Alderman said. “It’s a protection of racial boundaries and racial power.”
Much street naming in the past focused on commemorating white figures in history, and to a certain extent African-Americans still do not have complete freedom to engage in rewriting cities.
“Many street-naming proponents ask for a street that cuts across racial boundaries, but a lot of the opposition doesn’t allow that to happen,” Alderman said.
This leads streets named after King to be located in largely African-American neighborhoods.
“It’s a bitter irony; we’re commemorating a man who battled against segregation by segregating his memory,” Alderman said.
As the number of streets named after King continues to grow, the conversation about racial issues grows with it.
“These streets are points of pride but they’re also points of struggle,” Alderman said. “These streets are arenas for debating race. They have power to ensure King’s legacy will not be bypassed.”
Alderman has discussed his research on CBS Evening News, the BBC, and NPR’s Morning Edition, and in USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Ebony magazine, as well as in newspapers from Atlanta and New Orleans to Seattle and Sacramento.
For more information about streets named after King, visit Alderman’s website at mlkstreet.com.