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Street Politics

June 16, 2014

One example of how cities pay homage to civil rights heroes can be found at the intersection of Harriet Tubman Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee.

By Robert S. Benchley

Most of us encounter dozens, maybe even hundreds, of named streets as we go about our daily lives. When one is named for a prominent historical figure, we usually have a brief flash of recognition. The “who” part isn’t lost on us, but we rarely think about the “where” or the “why.”

Not Derek Alderman. The professor and head of UT’s Department of Geography is a scholar of place names and how they are used to create a shared public memory.

“Geography is about the relationship between people and place and the cultural landscapes that are created,” Alderman says. “The use of place names for commemorative purposes is about creating psychological and emotional connections.” He contends that marking the landscape with the names of renowned people was a key strategy for promoting nationalism in the early days of the United States.

Alderman’s particular area of expertise involves streets named for Martin Luther King Jr. and the controversy they often generate. He says that even now, nearly half a century after the civil rights leader’s assassination, a proposal to name a street in honor of King stirs up sentiments demonstrating that racial divisions are still prevalent. In many communities, opposition groups have tried to stop the naming or change the proposed street, especially if it is a major thoroughfare.

Why all the fuss over a street sign? Alderman believes it’s because street names play a very complex role in our lives. “A street is a way-finding device. Our address ensures that people, mail, and deliveries can get to us,” he says. “Street names are also symbolic. People attribute social and cultural value to their address. They identify with it, and renaming requires them to change their identity in a way.”

A Curious Course

Derek Alderman

Derek Alderman

For much of the past fifteen years, Alderman has mapped and studied streets named for King. He has written numerous scholarly articles on the subject and co-authored a book, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory, which deals with it in the larger context of race relations. His interest began, innocently enough, as the Georgia native was driving through the small town of Eatonton about seventy-five miles southeast of King’s home town of Atlanta.

As Alderman passed through town that day, he caught a glimpse of a modest street named for King and wondered, “How did this street come to be here? And what does it say about changes that are happening within the US and specifically in the American South?”

Growing up in the South, Alderman saw a lot of Confederate monuments, but not many celebrating the civil rights movement. By the 1990s, however, many streets were being renamed for King. “I saw that there was a change happening in the South and how it was remembering its past,” he says. This prompted him to delve into broader questions revolving around race and the role it still plays in American society.

Undisputed Leader

According to Alderman’s research, there are more than 900 streets named for King worldwide. Most are in the US and can be found in forty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Eighty percent of them are in the South. Georgia leads with 128. Tennessee has fourteen, including Knoxville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

In addition to King, Alderman has found streets named for other civil rights icons and exemplars of African-American achievement such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. He has documented at least ten streets named for Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist and humanitarian. Knoxville’s Harriet Tubman Street actually crosses Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, creating an intersection of civil rights memories.

MLK MemorialKing’s preeminence is likely due to the fact that he was the leading civil rights figure of his time and was taken violently in his prime. Alderman notes that John F. Kennedy’s assassination five years earlier had similar characteristics, and the rush to rename streets and other public places in his memory may have set a precedent for King’s admirers. The creation of a MLK federal holiday in the 1980s also significantly spurred the street-naming movement.

“Naming a street after King is part of the process of putting his memory in place, and with that comes a certain kind of racial politics,” says Alderman, who also is a research fellow in the UT Center for the Study of Social Justice. “Proponents want to name streets that are highly visible and cut across major racial boundaries. Those on the other side want to keep them restricted within the African-American community, and often King’s name is segregated or marginalized. It’s symbolic of the fact that the civil rights movement isn’t over yet and there is much work left to be done.”

Changing Direction

In Knoxville, the contention surrounding the effort to rename East Vine Avenue after King in 1989 was similar to experiences in many other communities, Alderman says. Opponents of the move did their best to stall it with procedural red tape. It ultimately took a three-week house-by-house canvassing by volunteers from local churches to collect the 400 signatures needed to push the change through. And as is typical in many other municipalities, the renamed street traverses a predominantly African-American section of Knoxville, portions of which are struggling economically.

Alderman attributes the push-back to attitudes that exist today, more than 150 years after the Civil War. “The white ruling class, while not victorious, was able to maintain racial control in the years after the war,” he says. “In that way, they were the victors after all. Traditionally, white Southerners have ignored, misrepresented, or trivialized African Americans and their place within the region’s public memory.”

Still, the wheels of change are slowly moving. “While remembering King is important, his memory has tended to squeeze out other actors in the civil rights movement such as women, students, and grassroots activists. That’s why Harriet Tubman Street makes Knoxville a very interesting place today. In many other cities, we’re seeing memorials to African-Americans other than King, as well as representatives of other minorities.”

Remembering Tubman also speaks to growing efforts to reclaim the history of slavery, Alderman says. The popularity of the film Twelve Years a Slave demonstrates a growing desire to recognize the centrality and brutality of slavery within US history and the struggles of African-Americans against it.

“In the American South, we’re engaged in a process of broadening the way we see history,” he says. “I suspect that naming streets for Tubman and others from the history of the movement will increase. We hear a lot about how we’re in the post-civil rights era, but it’s not so. America is still grappling with race and racism, and it’s going on strong.”

The selective concern over street signs is just one indication that we remain a divided nation, still struggling to achieve King’s dream of equality and justice. They may seem insignificant at first, but these simple and conspicuous tributes serve as important mile markers along the road to unity.