More than 1,000 streets in the world bear the name of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
At least 955 of those streets can be found in the U.S. They’re in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Martin Luther King streets cross a diversity of neighborhoods — rural and urban, residential and commercial, large and small. The range of these named streets across the country makes it seem that remembering and memorializing King was inevitable.
My research over the past 20 years has examined the role of African-Americans in the King street-naming process. I have found that the nation’s Martin Luther King streets — while seen by some as celebrating the victories of a movement that left racism safely in the past — are one terrain on which a continuing struggle for civil rights has played out.
It started in Chicago
The geographic range of King streets reflects the influence of King’s work. It also reflects the cultural and political power of African-Americans, who are largely responsible for bringing street renaming proposals before local city councils and county commissions.
Just months after King’s assassination in 1968, Chicago became the first city to rename a street for King. Alderman Leon Despres, a white liberal and King supporter, initially proposed renaming a street in the city’s central business district. However, Mayor Richard J. Daley followed with a different resolution. He wanted to place King’s name on South Park Way, a road more than 11 miles long that runs strictly through African-American communities on Chicago’s South Side.
Daley was no fan of King and infamous for his shoot-to-kill order against rioters after the civil right leader’s murder. When King came to Chicago in 1966 to challenge segregated housing, he encountered great hatred from taunting and violent white crowds.
According to journalists Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, in their book “American Pharaoh,” Mayor Daley was seeking to mend his and the city’s public image in the lead up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Indeed, he held the street renaming dedication ceremony a week before the convention. At the same time, the mayor didn’t want to alienate his political base of racially hostile whites.
Two black city aldermen objected to Daley’s proposal. One of them, Alderman A.A. “Sammy” Rayner, called the street renaming “tokenism” and called on city leaders to do “something bigger.” He and William Cousins Jr. suggested renaming a proposed Crosstown Expressway. It was planned to cut across, and unite, different parts of Chicago. But the City Council eventually approved the mayor’s plan to rename South Park Way as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, which it remains today.
Even now, 50 years later, proponents still must fight to convince many municipal officials that King’s name belongs on major roads.
More than just a name
Many of the activists with whom I have spoken view King streets as a way to carry on King’s unfinished work to create racial equality and economic justice in the U.S.
Greater visibility, they argue, can communicate the legitimacy of King’s message. More streets named after the civil rights leader, especially in prominent parts of town, can help educate a wider white public of the relevance and resonance of civil rights and black historical contributions.
However, public opposition over the past half-century has led most cities to rename smaller streets or portions of roads located entirely within poor African-American neighborhoods. Opponents tend to be white business and property owners on affected roads. In public, most cite concerns over cost and inconvenience. Some suggest the association with King’s name will stigmatize their neighborhood.
For example, when a Chattanooga real estate developer faced the prospect of his new development on West Ninth Street being named for King, he expressed concern about renting offices to potential clients because a MLK address, in his words, would create “racial overtones.” Suggesting King’s name was out of place on the road, he said: “West Ninth Street is not related to Dr. King. … It is no longer a solid black street. … It is no longer a residential street or rundown business street. It is a top class business street.”
Many cities have resorted to dedicating a road to King, rather than force a full name and address change. Several cities such as Zephyrhills, Florida, and Statesboro, Georgia, also created renaming ordinances in direct response to King street-naming efforts. While these policies now apply to all renaming efforts, they were created with the original intent of limiting how and where citizens remember King within their communities. These policies echo a long history of black disenfranchisement, procedural injustice and segregated public spaces.
In places such as Tulsa, Indianapolis and the North Carolina city of Greenville, King roads have doubled as memorials and boundaries between King’s supporters and those who do not identify with or desire to be associated with him. Extending King’s name even a few blocks can become contentious.
For many African-Americans, the fight to have a voice in King street naming parallels recent activism against Confederate monuments and symbols of white supremacy. In the same way, it is about claiming and exerting one’s right to belong, and remembering and being remembered in communities where rights were denied for generations.
Roads of resilience
The neighborhoods through which many King streets run reflect both the resiliency and precariousness of black American life. In the words of journalist Doug Moore, King’s road in St. Louis, Missouri, is “where hope and despair collide.” King streets host disproportionately high numbers of churches, government offices and schools, as well as beauty parlors and barber shops. These provided valuable refugee and mobilization spaces during the civil rights movement and today serve as hubs of resourcefulness, aid and creative community building. These institutions exist alongside high crime rates, poverty, abandoned buildings, food deserts and sputtering redevelopment efforts.
Revitalization is on the minds of many King street activists. They want to raise incomes, property values and quality of life without the forced displacement of gentrification. These efforts, while more formalized than in the past, have moved slowly if not failed without private and public support.
These activists believe that convincing the larger public to care about King streets is of critical importance. King’s namesakes don’t just memorialize. They can open up critical discussions of the continuing power of racism. They can be avenues – literally and figuratively – to continuing the civil rights leader’s work of battling racial and economic inequality and the creation of a black sense of belonging and place in the U.S.
Derek H. Alderman is professor of geography at the University of Tennessee.