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Dr. M.L. King Jr. Avenue in Memphis, Tenn. Photo by Sean Davis/Creative Commons

A UT professor’s research that identifies streets bearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s name examines how naming the roads in honor of the civil rights leader is part of a watershed movement to rewrite and reclaim US history in a way that incorporates the contributions of people of color.

Derek Alderman’s project will be a prominent part of the National Civil Rights Museum’s 50th anniversary commemoration of King’s life and legacy this spring. King was assassinated April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which now is the site of the museum.

Derek Alderman
Derek Alderman

Alderman, a UT professor of geography, noted that until recently, most US streets were named for white men such as founding fathers, presidents, and wartime generals.

“We had a very white-centric—and we still do—streetscape telling the stories of America through the eyes and experiences of white men,” he said. “With renaming streets for King, it is a recognition of the contribution of African Americans and this African American man in the civil rights movement. It is part of a new American commemorative movement.”

As of December 2017, Alderman had identified 955 streets named for King in the United States and Puerto Rico. The streets either bear King’s full name or a derivative such as MLK or M L King. He does not include streets simply named King since many of those don’t reference the civil rights leader.

MLK streets are found in 41 states including Alaska, as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Seventy-nine percent of the nation’s places with MLK streets are found in 12 southern states, which is not surprising given that the South was the early battleground of the civil rights movement, Alderman said.

King also was a southerner and native of Georgia, and African Americans still make up a significant proportion of the population of southern states.

National Civil Rights Museum staff reached out to Alderman after they came across his research and a map he published online about streets named for King. He and Janna Caspersen, a UT doctoral student in geography, updated the data and the map. She is creating a large version of the map that will be the foundation of the museum’s exhibit. Alderman plans to attend the unveiling in April.

Janna Caspersen
Janna Caspersen

Caspersen, who joined the MLK streets project while pursuing her master’s degree at a different university, became interested in the socioeconomics and general reputation of streets named after King.

“Having the maps and locations can be very revealing in terms of the public general interest in his history and how they view his history, depending on the scale and size and location and mystique surrounding them,” she said. “In some places, they are long main avenues, which indicates a level of importance. In other places, they are small side streets, which indicates a level of disenfranchisement.”

Underlying the map of MLK streets in America is a story of political struggle as African American communities seek to claim not only their place in US history and memory but also a place for expressing themselves within the public spaces of towns and cities, Alderman said. While the street naming may appear to be common and not politicized, activists often encounter political struggles over whether King’s name should be placed on a roadway and which road that should be.

The MLK streets data can be useful for activists who go before elected officials seeking to honor King with a street.

“If they can show that so many communities have streets named for King, it lends support and it gives the community a certain power that comes with having scientific fact and evidence,” Alderman said. “It shows the street naming is not a fad or weird request.”

The 15 states with the largest number of places with an MLK street, in order from most to least, are: Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, California, Illinois, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and New York.

Alderman recently published a book he co-edited on street naming, The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics, and Place. The text addresses the politics of naming streets in the United States and around the world.

He also is working with National Geographic to provide data for a story the publication is crafting about King’s legacy. The feature will appear in the April issue.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Derek Alderman (865-974-0406, dalderma@utk.edu)