MLK Street (Re) Naming, Social Justice, and African American Freedom Struggle

December 15, 2017  • Posted in Member Projects  •  0 Comments

Derek H. Alderman, Department of Geography, University of Tennessee

While the study of streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr. has long interested me, my current work seeks to create a closer dialogue between the study of place naming and issues of social and spatial justice and African American belonging.  Often, the politics of street naming is not just about honoring King, but it is also about publicly recognizing the importance and legitimacy of all African-Americans and challenging the longstanding pattern of memorializing white supremacy.  The struggle to name roads for King is part of a broader fight for public space in American cities and the under-analyzed relationship between the symbolic ad material politics of commemorative place naming and the African American freedom struggle. King streets as not only monuments to the Civil Rights Movement but also extensions of the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the face of unfair public policies and city ordinances and racist storytelling/stereotyping about African American people and places.  Commemorating King along the nation’s roadways exposes the continuing importance of traditional racial and economic boundaries and borders in communities, the elite, property-based interests that often direct city planning and development, the unwillingness of government officials to engage issues of race and racism, and the legacy of transportation and environmental racism as it affects communities of color.  I seek to make research findings and perspectives available to public leaders, managers, planners, and activists and I am presently working with community activist Terrence Dicks of Augusta, Georgia to organize a national forum on the economic justice challenges facing the nation’s King streets.

Twitter: @MLKStreet

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