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Street names and the scaling of memory: The politics of commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr within the African American community

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Abstract

Streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr are common yet controversial features in cities across the United States. This paper analyses the politics of naming these streets as a ‘scaling of memory’– a socially contested process of determining the geographic extent to which the civil rights leader should be memorialized. Debates over the scaling of King's memory revolve around the size of the named street, the street's level of prominence within a hierarchy of roads, and the degree to which the street transcends the spatial confines of the black community. A street-naming struggle in Eatonton, Georgia (USA) exposes how the scaling of memory can become a point of division and contest within the black community as activists seek to fulfil different political goals. Analysing these intra-racial contests allows for a fuller appreciation of the historical consciousness and geographic agency of African Americans rather than seeing them as a single, monolithic group.
Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: The Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther
King, Jr. within the African American Community
Author(s): Derek H. Alderman
Source:
Area,
Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 163-173
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Area (2003) 35.2,163-173
Street names and the scaling of memory:
the politics of commemorating Martin Luther
King, Jr
within the African American community
Derek H Alderman
Department of Geography, East
Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858, USA
Email: aldermand@mail.ecu.edu
Revised manuscript received 12 Feberuary 2003
Streets named for
Martin Luther King, Jr are common yet controversial features in cities
across the United States. This paper analyses the politics of naming these streets as a
'scaling of memory' - a socially contested process of determining the geographic extent to
which the civil rights leader should be memorialized. Debates over the scaling of King's
memory revolve around the size of the named street, the street's level of prominence
within a hierarchy of roads, and the degree to which the street transcends the spatial
confines of the black community. A street-naming struggle in Eatonton, Georgia (USA)
exposes how the scaling of memory can become a point of division and contest within the
black community as activists seek to fulfil different political goals. Analysing these intra
racial contests allows for a fuller appreciation of the historical consciousness and geographic
agency of African Americans rather than seeing them as a single, monolithic group.
Key words: United States, street naming, scale, Martin Luther King, commemoration, African
American
Introduction
Memorial landscapes and spaces play a central role
in shaping how the public values, identifies with and
debates the past (Johnson 1995; Foote 1997; Till
1999; Crampton 2001). Although largely neglected
by scholars until recently, commemorative street
naming is an important vehicle for bringing the past
into the present. According to Azaryahu,
commemorative street names (like other place names)
conflate history and geography and
merge the past they
commemorate into ordinary settings of human life.
Embedded into language, they are active participants
in the construction and perception of social reality.
(Azaryahu
1997, 481)
Commemorative street names, like all places of
memory, are open to multiple, competing inter
pretations of the past (Charlesworth 1994). Yeoh
characterized the street renaming project as 'an
uneven, negotiated process of constant mediations',
in which 'people questioned, challenged, or came
up with alternative readings of both the forms and
meanings of street-names' (1996, 305-6).
To advance the literature on commemorative
street names further, I
explore the politics of naming
streets after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther
King, Jr. These streets are increasingly common
features in cities across the United States. As public
symbols, they represent 'significant variations in the
American social landscape', revealing 'the character
of both the figure commemorated and the community
that has honored him' (Stump 1988, 215). By 1996,
King's name was attached to 483 streets in the
country (Alderman 2000). Given the problematic
nature of collecting such data and the popularity of
ISSN 0004-0894 ? Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2003
164 Alderman
the commemorative practice, the current number
of streets is likely much higher. The growing pre
valence of Martin Luther King streets should not
divert our attention away from the controversies and
struggles that often surround the naming process.
Geography figures prominently in debates over how
best to commemorate King.
When choosing a street to name or rename for
King, people show great sensitivity to the location of
racial communities, as well as spatial patterns of
commercial development. For instance, many African
American activists argue that Martin Luther King
was important to all races and hence should be
placed on streets accessible and visible to everyone
in the city (Osinski 1999). Consequently, they sup
port the renaming of major thoroughfares that cut
through prominent business districts and unite
white and black communities. Many whites do not
personally identify with King and public opposition
often leads to the confinement of his name to minor
streets or portions of large streets in
African American
areas of the city (Towns 1993). The renaming of
major thoroughfares is frequently disrupted by the
protests of the street's business owners and operators,
who cite the financial costs of changing their address
and the social stigma, as they see it, of being associ
ated with the black community (Alderman 2000).
The use of degraded and obscure streets to keep the
memory of King alive has, in some instances,
changed the streets' symbolic meaning from being
a point of African American pride to what one
news reporter referred to as a 'Boulevard of Broken
Dreams', another reminder of continued inequality
and repression (Yardley 1995, El).
Few studies have sought to unravel the political
struggles that surround this new commemorative
practice or the locational dynamics underlying these
struggles. A growing number of geographers are
examining the spatiality of public memory (Johnson
1995; Dwyer 2002; Leib 2002) and the cultural
politics of naming places, particularly streets (Cohen
and Kliot 1992; Myers 1996; Azaryahu 1996 1997).
This paper contributes to these studies by exploring
how geographic scale constitutes and structures the
politics of commemorating the past. I interpret the
naming of streets after Martin Luther King as a 'scaling
of memory' - a socially contested process of deter
mining the geographic extent at which the civil
rights leader should be memorialized. This scaling of
memory determines, in turn,
whether King's memory
will transcend traditional racial and economic bound
aries or simply reinforce their social importance.
Scholars have traditionally thought of scale as a
static category for organizing space. Not until
recently have they considered how geographic scale
is constructed and reconstructed through social
practice and political struggle (Herod 1997; Marston
2000; Mitchell 2002). Building upon the work of
Smith (Smith 1984; Smith and Dennis 1987), who
theorized about the role of capital in constructing
and manipulating scale, Herod (2001) has shown
how ordinary people can significantly reconstruct
the spatial extent or reach of their activities and
activism. As he first suggested in this journal several
years ago, geographic scale is made (and remade)
through everyday social practices of cooperation and
competition (Herod 1991). As Smith (1993) found in
his study of New York City's homeless, marginalized
populations can use scale as a political strategy for
bringing legitimacy and public visibility to their
cause. In this paper, I am interested in under
standing how African Americans, as an historically
discriminated social group, struggle to create and
control the geographic scale of recognizing King
and, in turn, the achievements of all blacks.
The struggle to define the geographic scale of
King's commemoration through street naming is
often viewed as inter-racial in nature. No doubt,
black and white Americans hold strong and often
competing opinions about the historical importance
of the civil rights leader and thus collide over
selecting the most appropriate street to identify with
him (Alderman 2002). The politics of place naming,
however, are rarely so dualistic. Instead, place
naming involves a complex, intertwined set of social
and political relations (Berg and Kearns 1996). More
over, the politics of remembering the past are not
just shaped by ideological struggles between social
groups but also struggles within those very groups
(Graham and Shirlow 2002; Olsen and Timothy
2002). This paper seeks to analyse the intra-racial
politics of commemorative street naming, specifically
how the memorialization of Martin Luther King can
become a point of division and contest within the
African American community. Of particular interest
is how black activists, embracing different political
goals, construct the geographic scale of King's com
memoration in conflicting ways. Analysing these
differences allows for a fuller appreciation of the
historical consciousness and geographic agency of
African Americans, who are often misrepresented as
a single, monolithic group.
This paper has two major objectives. My first
objective is to provide background on how the
Street names and the scaling of memory 165
politics of naming streets for King are played out in,
and shaped by, struggles to construct the geographic
scale of public commemoration. In
doing so, I
argue
for a more critical understanding of differences
and divisions within African American memory and
activism. My second objective is to present a brief
empirical illustration of how African American
activists competed with each other in determining
the most appropriate scale at which to memorialize
the civil rights leader. The case study focuses on a
street-naming struggle in Eatonton, Georgia (USA).
In 1990, the city witnessed a public struggle
between two African American leaders. While both
leaders defined the King legacy in a very positive
light, they offered dramatically different street-naming
proposals and, in doing so, exposed a tension
between exterior and interior uses of the past within
the black community. My work in Eatonton, which
dates back to 1993, is based upon research in
newspaper and government archives and intensive
personal interviews with African American leaders in
the community. It is one case study in a much broader
effort to examine the role of African Americans in
naming streets for King, the controversies they face
and the ultimate locations which these streets
occupy (Alderman 1998).
Importance of scale to commemoration
The naming of streets for
Martin Luther King is part
of a larger
movement in the United States to affirm
the historical importance of minority groups and
challenge traditional, white-dominated conceptions
of the past that frequently ignore these contributions
(Rhea 1997). With the establishment of federal and
state holidays in his honour, King has become an
official icon of the civil rights
movement and black
heritage in general - sometimes at the historical
neglect of lesser-known activists, particularly women
(Dwyer 2000). The movement to memorialize King
and the civil rights movement is affecting not only
the names attached to streets, but also the geography
of statues, museums, preserved sites, heritage trails
and festivals (Gallagher 1995; Armada 1998).
O'Meally and Fabre noted a significant need for
research that identifies and analyses African
American 'sites of memory' (1994, 3-4) or places
where blacks invest the past with great symbolic
and political significance. Analysing King streets is
an important entry point to understanding how
blacks struggle to incorporate their achievements
into the nation's collective memory.
Scale is an intrinsically important facet of memo
rializing the past and bringing significant public
attention to the historical contributions of African
Americans (Alderman 1996). The geographic scale
at which memory is produced (or commemoration
is carried out) determines, in large measure, the
populations who will be touched by the memorial
meanings being communicated. By expanding the
scale of memory or increasing the geographic extent
of commemoration, social actors and groups hope
to make images of the past retrievable or available to
a larger array of publics. As suggested by Schudson,
retrievability is an essential factor in shaping the
ultimate power or influence of a cultural object or
practice: 'If culture is to influence a person, it must
reach the person' (1989, 160). Street naming is a
potentially powerful form of commemoration because
of its capacity to make certain visions of the past
accessible to a wide range of social groups. In
contrast, a restriction in the scale of commemoration
can decrease the retrievability and accessibility of
the past, thus limiting the extent to which traditional
historical interpretations and valuations can be
challenged and changed. As Smith argued, scale has
a 'double-edged nature' and can be constructed to
both constrain identities as well as enlarge them
(1993, 114). King streets have a similar double-edged
nature. Depending on the location and spatial extent
of these streets, they can represent an expansion of
African American influence and cultural expression
or a reinforcement of the boundaries that have
traditionally constrained black identity and power.
Defining the notion of scale - as it relates to
streets and roads - can be difficult. Howitt identified
three facets of geographic scale - size, level and
relation. He noted that
while geographers generally
recognize scale in terms of 'size' and 'level within a
hierarchy', they have not fully explored the idea of
'scale as a relation between geographic totalities'
(1998, 50-2). In terms of size, the scaling of com
memoration can refer to the length or width of the
named street. In
many instances, the size of a street
determines the sheer number of residences and
businesses identified, by address, with a commemor
ated person or event. Addresses are essential to
daily activities and represent an important way of
inscribing commemorative meanings into a multitude
of urban practices and narratives (Azaryahu 1996).
The scaling of memory through street names can
also be defined in terms of level, specifically the
street's level of prominence within a city's hierarchy
of roads. As Azaryahu pointed out, there is often a
166 Alderman
positive correlation between 'the strategic importance
of a thoroughfare and the prestige of the associated
commemoration' (1996, 325). A prominent, fre
quently travelled street would represent a larger
and more significant scale of memorialization than
a small side road because of differences in the
amount of public exposure and visibility that each
road brings to a memorial cause.
African American activists hold strong views
about constructing the geographic scale of King's
commemoration relative to the size of the named
street and the street's perceived level of prominence.
In Sylvester, Georgia (USA), two black city council
members voted against a street-naming proposal
when they learned that King's name would be placed
in a poor, deteriorating neighbourhood (Towns
1993). In
Athens, Georgia (USA), African Americans
living along Reese Street opposed identifying King
with their street, which they described as 'unknown'
and 'drug infested' (Alderman 1996). In
March of
2002, African American activist Torrey Dixon
petitioned the city council of Danville, Virginia
(USA), asking that Central Boulevard, a major
commercial thoroughfare, be renamed in honour of
King. He considered the thoroughfare an 'appropriate
street' to rename because its central location and
high volume of traffic would ensure that King's
name would be seen by many people. The proposal
failed and officials suggested renaming a smaller
street that had served as a focal point for members
of the local civil rights movement when King had
visited Danville in 1963. The leader of the street
naming campaign rebuked this counter-proposal
and was quoted as saying: 'I think Dr. King should
have a major road ... I think having a road in a low
class neighborhood named after King is offensive'
(quoted in Davis 2002, 3A). In this case, the com
memoration of King at an inappropriate scale of
prominence represented a degradation of his memory,
even when the street in question had a strong
historical association with the civil rights leader.
The geographic scale of commemorative street
naming can also be defined in relational terms or
the extent to which a named street creates associ
ations or linkages between different people and places
in the city. Street names have a connectivity that
allows them to touch the consciousness of social
actors and groups who may or may not identify with
the person or event being remembered. However,
because cities often develop (intentionally and un
intentionally) in segregated patterns, not all streets
cut across and connect diverse populations, thus
reducing the scale of public identification and
interaction with a commemorative naming. When
commemorating King, African Americans are often
concerned about the location of the named street
in relation to the white community and the extent
to which the street serves as a geographic bridge
between races. Accompanying the importance of
naming a long and prominent thoroughfare is the
equally important desire to name a street that reaches
beyond the confines of the black community. This
was certainly the case in Keysville, Georgia (USA).
African American leaders found little opposition
when they renamed a street for King within the city
limits of Keysville. However, they encountered
intense resistance when they sought to have the
road renamed across the entire county from one
boundary to another. Ultimately, county commis
sioners voted against the extension of Martin Luther
King Road. This decision limited the geographic
scale of King's commemoration, specifically the scale
of race relations that would be embodied along the
renamed road. The city of Keysville is largely African
American (more than 75%) and the larger county is
almost 50 per cent white. Keysville's mayor, Emma
Greshman, reacted to the county commission vote
by saying: 'The whites who protested the new name
need a little more knowledge about what Dr. King
meant not only to his race but to America' (quoted
in
Atlanta Constitution 1989, A18). As indicated by
Greshman, the scaling of memory through street
naming is inherently political because people hold
multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas about the
public relevance of King's achievements.
Differences in
African American memory
and activism
Debates over where to commemorate Martin Luther
King are not just between whites and African
Americans. As the case study in the next section
will illustrate, black leaders may disagree with each
other about what constitutes an appropriate scale of
memorialization. To conduct an analysis of these
struggles requires a critical understanding of African
American memory and activism. Kelley (1994) and
Goings and Mohl (1996) emphasized the importance
of seeing blacks as active cultural and political
agents who mobilize to reclaim streets and other
public spaces as a means of redefining social and
political identity. These scholars also pointed to the
important role that divisions and contestation play
within the black community.
Street names and the scaling of memory 167
As Tuck (2001) recently noted in retracing the
history of the civil rights
movement in
Georgia (USA),
the struggle for racial equality does not follow one
normative pattern. Black activism, according to him,
can be defined and carried out in different and
conflicting ways. In some instances, integration takes
a back seat to blacks developing their community
institutions and a sense of psychological empower
ment. Even Martin Luther King holds a complex and
sometimes contradictory place in African American
history and culture. During the civil rights demon
strations of the 1
960s, black leaders in Savannah,
Georgia (USA) tried to bar King from preaching in
the city. They feared that the civil rights leader's
presence might antagonize local authorities and
disrupt an already successful protest movement. The
marginalization of King has even been inscribed into
Savannah's civil rights museum. Although located
on Martin Luther King Boulevard, the museum says
little about King's accomplishments and stresses,
instead, local activists and struggles during the
Movement.
An African American commemorative culture
existed long before the emergence of King as a
national icon. Clark (2000) has examined, for
example, Emancipation Day celebrations in the
years immediately following the Civil War. These
ceremonies represented more than a shared affirma
tion of the importance of black freedom. They also
'provided crucial forums for African Americans to
reflect, debate, and enact their own versions of
history and plans for the future' (Clark 2000, 125-6).
In speaking about the memory of slavery and the
evolution of black progress, a range of African
American voices could be heard at these gatherings
from conservative, accommodationist views to more
radical calls for change. Following the lead of Clark
(2000), the commemoration of King can be inter
preted as a forum or arena for African Americans to
present and debate their interpretations of his legacy
as they articulate future political visions for the
black community.
King's legacy - like all historical reputations (Fine
1996; Schwartz 1997) - is open to competing inter
pretations and constructions, even amongst his most
devoted supporters. This competition became evident
immediately after the civil rights leader's assassina
tion in 1968. While the SCLC (Southern Christian
Leadership Conference) sought to honour their
fallen leader through increased social activism and
protest, Correta Scott King placed more emphasis
on establishing the King Center in
Atlanta, Georgia
(USA) and establishing a holiday in her husband's
memory. The two parties even differed on when to
commemorate the civil rights leader. SCLC focused
on April 4, the date of King's death. The King family
preferred the birth date on January 1 5 (Daynes
1997). Jacqueline Smith is a more recent example of
intra-racial division over how best to memorialize
King. She has spent over a decade protesting the
conversion of the Lorraine Motel - the site of King's
assassination - into the National Civil Rights
Museum. Smith was the last resident of the Lorraine
before its closure. She argues that the museum does
not embody or truly commemorate the ideals and
beliefs of King, who would have never allowed low
income people to be displaced for the purpose of
building a memorial and tourist attraction (Jones
2000). While the museum focuses largely on King's
contribution to racial integration, Smith emphasizes
the civil rights leader's concern, later in his life, for
issues of poverty and economic inequality. According
to her, the Lorraine should have been converted into
a centre to offer housing, job training, education,
health services and other aid to the poor.
In assessing the commemoration of African
American memory, Ruffins (1992) made a distinction
between interior and exterior views of the past.
Interior interpretations of the past are those produced
by African Americans about their own experiences.
Exterior interpretations originate from outside the
black community. While this duality between
interior and exterior helps us understand how blacks
and whites remember and represent the past differ
ently, it can also shed light on commemorative
complexities within the African American community.
As Ruffins (1992) pointed out, African Americans
are bicultural, living in two American cultures - one
white and one black. Consequently, the remem
brance of Martin Luther King operates on at least
two different levels within the black community.
On the one hand, African Americans participate
in an exterior or external mode of commemoration
in
which King's image is fashioned for consumption
by non-blacks as well as blacks. The goal is to
educate a larger, white-dominated American culture
about the historical importance of King and his
social philosophies. The exterior or external mode
is characterized by an emphasis on using King's
memory to challenge prevailing, race-bounded views
of history and society. On the other hand, African
Americans also participate in an interior or internal
mode of commemoration in
which King's image is
used to inspire fellow blacks and give them a sense
168 Alderman
of racial pride and identity. From this perspective,
remembering the civil rights leader is more about
constructing a role model for the African American
community rather than presenting a multicultural
lesson for non-blacks. Indeed, Rhea (1997) asserted
that the growing movement to commemorate minority
historical contributions is not only about achieving
cultural recognition within the larger society but
also about (re)educating minorities in their own
heritage and cultural worth.
A potential tension underlies commemoration as
African Americans negotiate between interior and
exterior uses of memory. Implicit in each perspective
are ideas about what constitutes an 'appropriate'
scale at which to memorialize the past. Essential to
enacting an 'exterior' view of King's contributions is
constructing his commemoration at a geographically
expansive scale. By the same token, while an
'interior' view does not necessarily relegate the civil
rights leader's memory to obscure places, it does
emphasize the importance and value of spatially
focusing commemorative activities within the
confines of the black community. The following case
study illustrates how the tension between these two
memory/scalar perspectives can drive the politics of
naming streets for
Martin Luther King.
Street naming in Eatonton, Georgia (USA)
Eatonton is a town of 6764 people (2000) in Putnam
County, which is located in the central part of the
state of Georgia (USA). Although seemingly small
and obscure, Eatonton is actually representative of
many other towns that have engaged in the street
naming process. Well over three-quarters of all
Martin Luther King streets are located in the
American South, and Georgia - King's home state -
led the nation with the largest number of such
streets (72) in 1996. King street naming occurs in
small towns as well as large cities in the South
(Alderman 2000). Indeed, 41 per cent of these
streets are in places with populations ranging from
2500 to 9999. In Georgia, the median population
size of a place with a King street is only 5595. Street
naming in the southeastern United States occurs most
often in places where African Americans constitute at
least 30 per cent of the total population (Alderman
2000). Blacks comprise 59 per cent of Eatonton's
population and 30 per cent of the population of
Putnam County.
Eatonton is noted for being the birthplace of
authors Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker, both
of whom made significant contributions to the
representation of black culture and history in the
United States. Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), a
white author, is best known for writing the Uncle
Remus Tales. Harris retold the 'trickster' folktales
and fables of plantation slaves, which were acted
out by animal characters such as 'Brer
Rabbit' and
'Brer Fox'. Uncle Remus, the elderly narrator of
these tales, embodies the docility and humorous
innocence of the Sambo stereotype. Harris' writing
took on even greater popularity and stereotypical
proportions when Walt Disney adapted it into an
animated film titled Song of the South (Kesterson
1989). African American author Alice Walker (born
1944) constructed a different and perhaps more
complex image of rural black life in her book, The
Color Purple. While the Remus Tales were told by a
gentle black man and dealt with racial struggle in
sublime, metaphorical terms, Walker's protagonist
(Celie) and central characters were women and her
work dealt directly with issues of violence, abuse and
sexuality (Gaffney 1989). The Color Purple, also made
into a widely popular film, challenged Americans to
think more critically about divisions and struggles
within the black community.
The city of Eatonton named a road for Alice
Walker in 1985, five years before dedicating a street
to Martin Luther King. The naming of a street for
Walker further establishes the symbolic importance
that African Americans attach to place naming as a
means of making their accomplishments visible on
the landscape. Public recognition of Walker repre
sented an attempt to rewrite Eatonton's symbolic
landscape. From monuments and museums to
festivals and business names, the landscape is per
meated with references to the legacy of Joel Chandler
Harris and Uncle Remus. The establishment of Alice
Walker Drive is also significant because it exposed
a commemorative tension within the African
American community. This tension resurfaced and
became more clearly defined when selecting a
street to name for King. The black activists involved
in honouring Walker - many of whom participated
in King's commemoration - disagreed over whether
the author's name should adorn a street restricted to
the black community or one that reminds the entire
city of her accomplishments. As would become the
case with King, Alice Walker was identified with
a residential road populated largely by African
Americans. Interesting enough, Alice Walker Drive
closely parallels Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive,
although there is no direct evidence to suggest that
Street names and the scaling of memory 169
the honouring of Alice Walker influenced the
location of King's street (Figure 1).
The idea of naming a street in memory of Martin
Luther King made its formal appearance during an
Eatonton city council meeting on 4 September
1990. Black city councilman Ulysses Rice, then
vice-chairman of the local chapter of the NAACP
(National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People) and a former college classmate of
King, discussed the possibility of renaming Concord
Avenue for the civil rights leader (Eatonton City
Council Minutes, 4 September 1990). Concord was
a main residential artery in the African American
community as well as located near an elementary
school, a funeral home owned by Rice, an American
Legion post and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In
January of the previous year, the road had taken on
great symbolic importance as part of the route for a
'Freedom March' held on the Martin Luther King
holiday. Participants assembled at the Ebenezer
Baptist Church, marched to the county courthouse
and then returned to the church for a three hour
memorial service in
which a pastor re-enacted King's
'I Have a Dream' speech (Eatonton
Messenger 1989).
To mobilize support behind the renaming of
Concord after King, Rice and other members of the
NAACP distributed a questionnaire to residents
along the street asking if they were in favour of the
name change. Results of this questionnaire, which
indicated almost unanimous support for the name
change, were submitted to the city council in sup
port of the request made by Rice (Eatonton City
Council Minutes, 7 October 1990). On 7 November
1990, the city council officially changed the name
of Concord Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Drive
(Eatonton City Council Minutes, 7 November 1990).
In the case of Eatonton, geographic scale figured
directly in how activists conceptualized and carried
out the campaign to commemorate King through
street naming. For example, in explaining his support
for renaming Concord Avenue, councilman Rice
emphasized the size of the street. He stated,
'Concord ran all the way through the county to Pea
Ridge Road near Highway 441'. Indeed, Martin
Luther King Drive stretches over four miles, con
necting black residential areas of varying value
with rural dairy farms. To emphasize the relative
prominence of King Drive, Rice added, 'most of
the houses (along King Drive) are fairly decent by
black standards' (Rice 1998). This emphasis on the
street being evaluated by 'black standards' is impor
tant to our discussion because Rice advocated that
the geographic scale of Martin Luther King Drive be
limited largely to the spatial confines of the black
community.
From Rice's point of view, the scale of the named
street was appropriate for what he envisioned as its
political and social purpose. Promoting an interior
interpretation and use of the past, Rice showed
great concern for how King's commemoration
would focus and inspire the black community: 'If
naming the street after King hasn't done anything
else, it has pulled people together who want to live
in a decent neighborhood. Black people have a
place to be proud of' (Rice 1997). He represented
the renaming of Concord Avenue as a way of focus
ing the black public, particularly children, on King's
importance and the larger achievements of African
Americans. On this point, he said:
Helping to keep King alive in Eatonton was a way of
showing a person the great opportunities that await
black people. Black kids would have an opportunity to
drive down the street [King
Drive] and remember the
things that black people can achieve. Even little
children, who could care less.
Everyday they ride down
that street, it
gets drilled in them. When programs are
held at the school, if they don't know anything else
about Dr. King, they know his name is on a street
nearby. (Rice 1998)
Although the naming of Concord for King progressed
rather quickly, it did not go unchallenged. The
primary opponents were not local white citizens or
other city council members, but were from within
the African American community. On 15 October
1990, a group of African Americans led by Fannie
Pearle Farley - former vice-president of the
American Legion Auxiliary - requested that King's
name be attached to a road more prominent than
Concord Avenue (Eatonton City Council Minutes,
15 October 1990). She asserted that King was an
important symbol and that placing his name on a
major road would project a more positive image to
those living in the town and to the larger outside
world. Like Rice, Farley is a prominent leader in the
Putnam County African American community. In
1981, the NAACP voted her one of the ten most
influential women in
Middle Georgia. Farley had a
history of being heavily involved in commemorative
issues. For example, in 1986, her American Legion
Auxiliary erected a monument on the courthouse
lawn to honour veterans (Eatonton Messenger
1986). In 1990, not long before the emergence of
the King street-naming issue, Farley presented the
170 Alderman
0l0onee St
\ Brer Rabbit Statue
(2) Uncle Remus Museum
(3 Uncle Remus Golf Course
Produced
by: Nathan
Wood
Figure 1 Selected streets and landmarks in Eatonton, Georgia, USA
Source: Mosher-Adams, Inc. (1
993)
Street names and the scaling of memory 171
city with a flag that had been flown over the United
States Capitol (Eatonton
City Council Minutes, 5 March
1990). Because of Farley's previous leadership in
commemorative issues, she felt compelled and
justified to approach the city council to express an
alternative vision of how best to commemorate King.
In challenging the attachment of King's name to
Concord Avenue, Farley offered two alternatives. The
first was Jefferson Avenue, one of the town's major
thoroughfares and a national highway (Figure 1).
The second was the then-uncompleted Highway 441
bypass, which now runs around the western edge of
the town. The renaming of Jefferson Avenue was
quickly dismissed by the city council because of the
unlikelihood of gaining the support of the street's
white population. In fact, one white city councilman
responded by stating: 'I don't want to shove this
(renaming a street) down anybody's throat if they
don't want it' (quoted in Eatonton Messenger 1990,
1). This view reflects an assumption found in
many
communities that residents and businesses located
along the street in question should have a dispro
portionately strong influence on the approval or
revocation of a name change. Left out of this per
spective are the voices of people who identify with
and use the street by simply working, shopping and
driving along it. As Berg and Kearns pointed out,
the politics of naming places are 'both a politics of
space (deciding who names and controls space) and
a spatialized politics (whereby the spatial defines
who has legitimacy to speak)' (1996, 1 1
1). The
spatialized politics embodied in place naming can
have a dramatic effect on the geographic scale at
which King is ultimately commemorated, since it is
unlikely that all (if not most) of the stakeholders
on a large, racially diverse street would agree to a
renaming. Responding to resistance toward the
Jefferson proposal, Farley suggested that naming
the new bypass would avoid some of the political
controversy that results from renaming a street. Yet,
the bypass proposal also failed because of plans to
name the highway after a still living and very popular
city official, James Marshall. Debating the merits of
naming the bypass for King was further complicated
by the fact that Marshall was well liked by the black
community in Eatonton. Ultimately, Farley was
unsuccessful in convincing the city council to place
King's name on a different and, as she saw it, a
more appropriate street for King.
While Ulysses Rice argued that a largely African
American street was an appropriate geographic
scale for commemorating King and representing the
achievements of blacks, Fannie Pearle Farley coun
tered by suggesting that the geographic scale of
street naming should extend beyond the black
community. In building her conception of an appro
priate scale at which to commemorate King, Farley
advocated an exterior use of memorialization,
emphasizing the importance of naming a street that
would be visible to and touch white residents and
visitors. She stated:
Signs are important.
The problem
with Concord Avenue
[King Drive] is people going through Eatonton can't see
it. Where it is now, people don't know it's there. The
magnitude of King demands that a prominent street be
named after him, not one stuck in the black area of
town. After all, King did not fight just for blacks but for
everyone. (Farley 1997)
From Farley's perspective, street naming was a way
of bringing the importance of King to the attention
of whites, who, in her opinion, benefited from the
civil rights leader's achievements along with blacks.
Unlike Rice, her notion of geographic scale is con
cerned less with the size or length of street per se
and more with its ability to transcend racial bound
aries and hence create relations between different
groups of people within the city. While Rice is
advocating a scale of commemoration that honours
the traditional lines of residential segregation, Farley
is advocating that the scale of King's com
memoration should be constructed in such a way
as to break down what Rhea (1997) called the
'segregation of memory'. When asked whether she
thought the street-naming campaign had been a
success, Farley stated
No it wasn't because having
Martin Luther
King Drive
where it is does not give the community [the black
community] full credit for its achievements. The street
should have gone through
a
major thoroughfare. (Farley
1997)
In this respect, street naming in Eatonton was
characterized by a tension among African
Americans between using the geographical scaling
of King's memory as a device for challenging and
changing the historical consciousness of whites
versus using it as a means of consolidating and
focusing the black community ideologically.
Concluding remarks
Street names are important
memorial landscapes that
play a key but under-analysed role in the contested
172 Alderman
process of attaching meaning to the past. Streets
named for Martin Luther King, Jr represent one of
the most widespread and controversial products of
the ongoing US movement to recognize the
historical contributions of minorities, particularly
African Americans. I
have suggested that geographic
scale is an important factor in shaping political
struggles over public commemoration in general and
King's commemoration in particular. Recognizing
that differences and divisions exist in African
American memory and activism, I also suggested
that black leaders hold multiple and sometimes
competing views about the civil rights leader's
legacy and hence the most appropriate scale at
which to honour him through street naming. As
illustrated in the case of Eatonton, African
Americans may advocate interior or exterior scalar
constructions of King's commemoration depending
upon their immediate political goals. This is not
to minimize the importance of examining com
memorative struggles between black and white
Americans and those occurring within the white
community. However, this study sought to
challenge some basic assumptions about how
heritage and history are divided along racial lines.
As with any historical figure, King's legacy is open
to redefinition not only by opponents to his
political/social philosophy but also people who
unquestionably embraced and benefited from this
philosophy.
Acknowledgements
I appreciate the helpful comments provided by the two
anonymous reviewers. Nathan Wood provided valuable
cartographic assistance. I also owe a debt of thanks to
Andy Herod, Barry Schwartz and Donna G'Segner Alder
man for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this
manuscript.
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... New street names can be controversial in mature democracies. Alderman (2003) showed how the 6 Some local authorities and toponymic commissions tried to redesignate street names by altering the meaning of new streets but preserving their original names. These redesignations were not included in the count of streets officially renamed by city councils and I do not consider these redesignations as changes of names. ...
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