Martin Luther King Jr.
Streets in the South
A New Landscape of Memory
Derek H. Alderman
“By laying bare the racial fault lines in one community after another, by calling attention to the
circumstances of life in the heart of the black community while demanding better, the streets that
bear his name are Martin Luther King’s greatest living memorial.” —Haki R. Madhubuti
Traditionally, public commemoration in the South has been devoted largely
to remembering the region’s role in the Civil War and the mythic Old South
plantation culture supposedly lost as a result of that conict. These memories
remain deeply ingrained in the southern landscape of monuments, museums,
historical markers, and place names. Yet, African Americans who seek to make
their own claim to the South and its history increasingly challenge Civil War-
centered conceptions of the past. Perhaps the best known of these struggles
involve ongoing calls to remove public symbols of the Confederacy. At the
same time, African American southerners are using direct political action to
build memorials that recognize their own historical experiences, struggles,
and achievements. A major pillar in this trend is the commemoration of
another, quite dierent revolution from that of the Civil War—the Civil
The naming of streets after slain Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
is the most widespread example of African American eorts to rewrite the
landscape of southern commemoration. Despite the growing frequency of
naming streets in honor of Dr. King, this new cultural phenomenon has
received limited attention, even though the inscription of King’s legacy onto
streets is a potentially valuable indicator of where the South is in terms of race
relations. On the one hand, communities name streets after King as a result
of the increased cultural and political power of African Americans and the
liberalization of white attitudes. While the commemorative movement is driven
Martin Luther King Jr. Streets in the South 89
predominantly by the activism of African Americans, there are noteworthy
instances of whites not only supporting the cause but leading it. On the other
hand, naming streets for King is often a controversial process that exposes
continued racial divisions. Black activists who seek to rename thoroughfares
that cut through and connect dierent communities have confronted signicant
public opposition. This frequently leads to the placement of King’s name on
minor streets or portions of roads located entirely within the African American
community. At the same time that Martin Luther King streets speak to how far
the South has come since the Movement, they also speak to how far the region
still has to go in reaching the dream of racial equality and social justice.
The emergence of Martin Luther King streets increasingly marks the
symbolic place that these streets occupy within the lives of southerners and
Americans in general. Martin Luther King Drives, Boulevards, and Avenues
are important centers of African American identity, activity, and community—
constituting what journalist Jonathan Tilove has called “Black America’s Main
Street.” These streets are memorial arenas—public spaces for interpreting and
debating King’s legacies, grappling with questions of race and racism. For many
activists, nding the most appropriate street to identify with him comes with
the diculty of convincing the white establishment that King’s name belongs
on major roads, that his legacy has relevance and resonance to everyone’s lives.
To marginalize the commemoration of King on side streets within the black
community, particularly in the face of African American requests not to do so, is
to perpetuate the same force of segregation that the Civil Rights leader battled.1
Martin Luther King streets serve as points of pride and struggle in the
contemporary South. The photographs here challenge negative representations
of these roads. As Tilove so keenly observed in Along Martin Luther King, “It
has become a commonplace of popular culture to identify a Martin Luther
King street as a generic marker of black space and not incidentally, of ruin, as
a sad signpost of danger, failure, and decline . . . .”2 Not all of King’s roads are
located in blighted areas, and only by exposing and combating that stigmatizing
misconception can we hope to show the great potential of placing King’s name
in more prominent places. Additionally, it is important to understand how the
naming of even the most modest street has a story worth hearing; that, too, is
part of the southern cultural experience.
King Streets are found throughout the country, but they are concentrated in the South. Of the 730 U.S. cities
and towns that had named a street for King by 2003, 70% were found in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Florida,
Louisiana, Alabama, and North Carolina. Georgia has the largest number, in part because so many Civil
Rights organizations, campaigns, and leaders—including King himself—originated in the state. Overall, King
streets are found most often in places where African Americans represent at least a third of a city’s population,
which reects the strong role that black activism plays in street naming. Local chapters of the NAACP and
SCLC and various other black-led community improvement associations and coalitions, including King Holiday
commissions, often conduct street naming campaigns, and naming streets for the Civil Rights leader occurs in
a variety of places—from Atlanta and Houston to Denton, Georgia (pop: 269), and Cuba, Alabama (pop:
363).3 In fact, one characteristic that sets the South apart from other regions is that streets named for King appear
throughout the region’s range of populated places, in both non-metropolitan and metropolitan areas. The average
population size of a place with a King street is over 250,000 outside the South and less than 36,000 within the South,
and well over 60% of the South’s cities and towns with a King street have populations of less than 10,000. King’s
streets, courtesy of Derek Alderman, Matt Mitchelson, and Chris McPhilamy.
Left: Although naming streets for Martin Luther King is prevalent throughout the South, it is part of a larger
national and even global pattern of commemoration, testimony to the prominence of the Civil Rights leader’s
reputation. Less than a week after King’s assassination, the city council of Haarlem in the Netherlands voted to
name a street in his honor.4 Other international commemorative namings include streets in Israel, Belgium, and
Italy; plazas and squares in Russia, Brazil, and India; and schools in Panama and Cameroon. A named road in
Casalgrande, Italy, courtesy of Robert Le.
Right: The naming of streets after historical gures and events has long been part of the nation’s and the region’s
political culture. Street naming inscribes commemorative messages into the many practices and texts of daily
life, making certain versions of history appear to be the natural order of things. Road names permeate our daily
vocabulary, both verbal and visual, appearing on road signs, advertising billboards, and maps. Street names are
less ornate and awe-inspiring than monuments or museums, but they make the past intimately familiar to people
in ways that these other memorials cannot. The late activist and scholar Melvin Dixon keenly observed: “Not
only do these [street] names celebrate and commemorate great gures in black culture, they provoke our active
participation in that history. What was important yesterday becomes a landmark today.” The symbolic power of
street naming comes from its incorporation into everyday experiences rather than transcending them. Renaming
a street for King allows the Civil Rights leader to become part of one’s personal and place identity. For many
African Americans, this creates a sense of belonging in a region that has long alienated and marginalized them.
By asking white residents and business owners to change their mailing address, proponents also seek to make
King’s memory visible and important to a larger cross section of the public.5 El Dorado, Arkansas, courtesy of
Charles R. Franklin.
Left: King’s status and the legitimacy of street naming ceremonies rose after the federal government established
a holiday to honor him in 1983, fteen years after Congress rst proposed the holiday and after debate among
African American leaders about the most appropriate date. Many petitions to name a street are brought before
local governments immediately before or after the King birthday celebration in January. In Metter, Georgia, where
the street naming ceremony took place on the Sunday before the 1996 King holiday, pastor John Leett, who
directed the street renaming campaign, began and ended the ceremony with prayer and the singing of church hymns.
During the service, those in attendance read a litany of dedications, pledging themselves to peace, freedom, and
equality. While King’s birthday remains controversial and often isn’t observed by local government and businesses,
a named street provides a physically permanent memorial that requires community and municipal investment.
Local ocials (seated) at Metter’s naming ceremony, courtesy of Derek Alderman.
Right: Union Baptist Church (here) is one of the prominent landmarks along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in
Eatonton, Georgia. Churches are one of the non-residential establishments most frequently found having a King
address—almost three times as often as expected for any other street name in America. Eatonton’s small-town
(population under 7,000) strule to name a street typied those in larger municipalities. Town ocials refused
to rename a thoroughfare but showed no hesitation in placing King’s name on a largely black residential street.
One African American activist pushed for a major road visible to whites; another pushed for the renaming of the
African American street for King, hoping to inspire and educate African American children by citing the value of
connecting King’s legacy to the black church and other community institutions. Eatonton exposes a central tension
in many street naming strules: the desire to preserve the Movement’s racial identity and the need to educate the
broader public. Photograph courtesy of Derek Alderman.
Left: As the South reworks its cultural landscape to include the experiences of African Americans, new
memorials may intersect or collide with older, competing visions of the past—sometimes literally, as in the case of
streets named for Jeerson Davis and Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama (here), as well as in Montgomery,
where Jeerson Davis Avenue intersects with Rosa Parks Avenue. Multiple histories coexist within the southern
landscape, and these street junctions ask whether antagonistic memories can occupy the same space. Thus, street
signs can be popular targets for attempts to claim power over the legitimacy of certain versions of the past. In Dade
City, Florida, vandals painted the name “General Robert E. Lee” over nine Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
signs, and in a single year, almost one hundred street signs with King’s name in Hillsborough County, Florida,
were either spray-painted, shot at, or pulled completely from their poles.6 Photograph courtesy of Owen J. Dwyer.
Right: In 1982, the Chattanooga city commission changed the name of Ninth Street to M. L. King Jr. Blvd,
ending several months of heated debate. One of the major opponents to the name change was a white real estate
developer who was building an oce building on the western end of the street. He argued that he might not be
able to rent space with a King address because of the “racial overtones” it would create. In response, municipal
leaders initially refused to rename Ninth, prompting hundreds of African Americans to march in protest. In
front of crowds cheering “hallelujah,” activists such as Reverend M. T. Billingsley (here) pasted street signs and
utility poles with bumper stickers that read “Dr. ML King Jr. Blvd.” After this deant demonstration and an
emotional request from a coalition of black and white ministers, the city commission reversed its decision. Street
naming often occurs through political strule with activists using tactics honed during the Civil Rights Movement.
Photograph courtesy of the Chattanooga Regional History Museum.
For many African Americans, streets have a connectivity that contributes to their symbolism, as explained in
this editorial from the St. Petersburg Times: “Renaming a street is a uniquely appropriate way to honor King.
Streets unite diverse neighborhoods. They touch all ages, all races, all economic levels, and the resident and the
visitor equally. They link people and places that otherwise would remain insular.” 7 The notion of connectivity
is particularly relevant to the Civil Rights leader’s reputation as a champion for integration. However, it is the
power of street names to touch and connect disparate groups—some of which may not identify with King—that
also makes the practice controversial. Austin’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (here), formerly 19th Street,
is a major east-west artery that runs past the University of Texas and across the traditional racial dividing line
of Interstate Highway 35. Achieving this commemoration involved extraordinary sacrice. The renaming of 19th,
which occurred in 1975, drew intense public debate, particularly from the predominantly white western end. City
council members would have probably reversed their decision if not for the sacrice of J. J. Seabrook, the president
of Austin’s historically black Huston-Tillotson College, who died of a heart attack while pleading with the city
council to keep King’s name on the entire street. Photograph courtesy of Jim Pell.
The most vocal opposition to street renaming often
comes from aected business and property owners,
who cite the cost of changing their address, leading
some cities to dedicate streets or portions of streets
to King rather than full-edged renaming. This
was the case in 2007 when the city-parish council of
Lafayette, Louisiana, dedicated Willow Street for
King. Lafayette already had a street named for the
Civil Rights leader, but two members of the council
argued that the road was not prominent enough. The
debate became so heated that protests were carried out
in front of City Hall, and one council member was
arrested and ned for defacing public property after he
carved “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr! ” into his council
desk. Lafayette’s mayor proposed the dedication of
Willow as a political compromise. Some activists argue
that dedicating streets does not carry the same dignity
as renaming—nor does it require the larger white
community to interact with and invest in memorials
to the Movement. Indeed, even when the cost of an
address change is not at issue, white citizens in some
cities have opposed having honorary King signs placed
in their neighborhoods in an attempt to maintain racial
boundaries. In Lafayette, it rained heavily during the
dedication ceremony, forcing attendees under tents,
where they prayed, held hands, and sang. Photographs
by Lesile Westbrook, courtesy of The Daily Advertiser.
Marches, such as this one in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2005, often accompany street naming dedication
ceremonies. Roads and transportation have long played an important tactical and symbolic role in African
American strules for Civil Rights. In supporting the controversial proposal to rename Chapel Hill’s Airport
Road, a thoroughfare, white city councilor Sally Greene expressed what she saw as the historical and political
meaning behind commemorating King along the region’s roadways: “Under Jim Crow laws, blacks had a hard
time just making a road trip. They had to pack their own food, even their own toilet paper, for they didn’t know
if they would nd a restaurant that would serve them or even a gas station where they could use the bathroom.
. . . Then came Dr. King and the [Montgomery] bus boycott and the push for the public accommodation law. . . .
Mobility, the freedom to travel the public roads without fear and with the assurance that you get what you needed—
these were the basic goals for King. Thus, I can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King than with a road
renaming.”8 Photograph courtesy of Derek Alderman.
Once renamed, streets frequently serve as parade and protest routes for African Americans and other activist
groups seeking to associate themselves with King’s memory and message. The Coalition Against Racism marched
along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Greenville, North Carolina (here), in January 2006 as part of King
Holiday observances. The city renamed West Fifth Street Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1999. African
American leaders originally sought to rename all of Fifth Street—not just part of it—but residents and business
owners on the eastern end strongly opposed the proposal. (King’s namesake marks an area that is predominantly
black whereas East Fifth is mostly white.) More recent attempts to rename all of Fifth Street have failed and in
February 2007, a group of white municipal leaders voted to rid themselves of the divisive issue by naming the city’s
bypass for the Civil Rights leader and reverting King Drive back to the name West Fifth Street. As a result,
African Americans in Greenville bore the expense and inconvenience of changing their address twice, to ensure,
in eect, that white property owners on East Fifth Street would not have to do so. Shifting King’s name from
the downtown to the outskirts of town also removes an important platform for marches. While King challenged
segregation, his legacy is often xed at a scale that reinforces contemporary racial boundaries and thus allows many
white southerners to “bypass the dream.” Photograph by Greg Eans, reprinted with permission of The Daily
Opponents of King Street naming often argue that African Americans should honor a local gure rather than a
person without a direct historical connection to the community, but there are numerous towns and cities that can
brag of having hosted Martin Luther King. Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over 6 million miles and spoke
2,500 times. Proposals to rename roads elicit stories of local activists who marched with King or simply met him,
and renaming ceremonies often coincide with the anniversary of the Civil Rights leader’s visit to a city. However,
as street naming proponents also suest, King’s impact is universal and not conned just to those places where
he slept, preached, or marched. A stone monument along Martin Luther King Road in Pawley’s Island, South
Carolina, reads: “Honoring a world citizen [King ] who never walked this road but whose life’s works helped all
those who do.” Photograph courtesy of Derek Alderman.
Despite suestions to the contrary, the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. does not always overshadow
the honoring of local gures. In Savannah, Georgia (here), King Boulevard is the address for the Ralph Mark
Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, named after the “father” of the city’s Civil Rights strule. The close proximity
of the museum to King’s name creates an ironic memorial landscape. During the Civil Rights demonstrations of
the 1960s, black leaders in Savannah—including Gilbert—tried to bar King from preaching in the city. They
feared that his presence might anger municipal ocials and disrupt an already successful protest movement, and
perhaps undermine their authority.9 It is not surprising , then, that the Gilbert museum says little about King but
focuses largely on local activists and strules. In death as in life, King remains outside of Savannah’s Civil Rights
story. What appears to be a harmonious coupling of national and local historical gures actually reects competing
historical visions of the Movement and its drivers. However, though the city sought to avoid an association with
King in the 1960s, that aversion has waned. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is the focus of major urban
development, one of the main boundaries of Savannah’s famous historic district, and the address for the city’s
visitor’s center, which hosts millions of tourists every year. Photograph courtesy of the Savannah Morning
Left: Streets named for King become connected to other memorial forms, historical gures, and political causes.
Freedom Corner Monument sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers boulevards in
Jackson, Mississippi. The parallel commemoration of King and Evers, both martyrs for the Movement, obscures
the old tension between the country’s largest Civil Rights organizations: King’s Southern Christian Leadership
Conference and the NAACP, which fought for primacy across the South. More recently, the site has played host
to a dierent kind of Civil Rights strule. In 2001, a group led by a black city council member burned a state ag
at Freedom Corner as a protest against the Confederate battle emblem on Mississippi’s ocial banner. Photograph
courtesy of Elizabeth Hines.
Right: This broken street sign in Woodland, Georgia, speaks to the degraded and poor conditions along some
of the South’s Martin Luther King streets. Woodland’s memorial to King is a small residential road o of State
Highway 41 that runs through the county’s housing authority and beside a wastewater treatment plant located
alarmingly close to some homes. Many of the political dynamics that allow noxious sites to be located in poor,
minority communities also lead to the marginalization of King’s memory. Opponents of street renaming frequently
invoke similar arguments: it’s O.K. to honor him but “not on my street,” an interesting corollary to the more
famous NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) mantra heard in many communities. Opponents also commonly argue
that property values drop on a King street, although there is no evidence to substantiate this. Rather than causing
poverty, King’s name is sometimes placed in areas already struling. The renaming of blighted and obscure
streets can be yet another reminder of continued racial inequality, what one reporter has called a “Boulevard of
Broken Dreams,” or in the case of Woodland, a “Dream Turned Upside Down.”10 Photograph courtesy of
Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue (!) in Marianna, Florida (here), is a small stretch of road with just a handful of
residences. Standing at the street’s junction with Highway 276, one can see its terminus less than a tenth of a mile
away. Some proponents of street naming relish the opportunity of having their address identied with King and
hence have no problem axing his name to a small street within an African American neighborhood, believing,
too, that having any street renamed for the Civil Rights leader is better than to have no street renamed at all.
While some King streets in the South are commercial thoroughfares, well over 85% are “neighborhood roads,”
understood to be small, residential streets.11 Feeling that smaller, less visible streets restrict the public impact and
importance of King’s image, some outspoken African Americans have sought to nd the Civil Rights leader a
more central place within cities. In 2001, a local NAACP chapter in Clearwater, Florida, called for the removal
of King’s name from a narrow, three-block street that extended only 500 feet, and their campaign resulted in the
renaming of a larger road. Photograph courtesy of Derek Alderman.
Some Martin Luther King streets enjoy commercial prominence,
such as Tampa’s King Street, which extends over fourteen miles,
connects with two interstate highways, and serves as home to over 500
non-residential addresses. King’s namesake in New Bern, North
Carolina, is a numbered U.S. Highway and the location of over
200 businesses, including a shopping mall (above), Wal-Mart, car
dealerships, and a Pepsi bottling plant. (Pepsi-Cola was invented in
New Bern.) The skyline behind King Boulevard in Charlotte, North
Carolina (below), shows its proximity to the city’s corporate landscape
and centrality to future growth. Martin Luther King is one of three
streets bordering the site of the much anticipated NASCAR Hall
of Fame—an interesting juxtaposition given the cold reception many
African Americans show stock car racing. But perhaps NASCAR
can use the association with King as it pursues a diversity initiative
among fans and tries to shed its Confederate ag-waving image.
Photographs courtesy of Matthew Mitchelson (above) and E. Arnold
Modlin Jr. (below).
The supposed inferiority of Martin Luther King Streets has
even found its way into the discourse of humor. Comedian
Chris Rock famously declared in his HBO comedy series,
“If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost
on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know
what they should do, the best response is, ‘Run!’” Rock’s
satire means to prompt his audience to question and change
the status quo, but his words have been used by street naming
opponents to fuel assertions that having a King address is
disadvantageous. Still, businesses of all sorts sit along MLK
streets, including Archibald’s Bar-B-Que in Northport,
Alabama. George Archibald Jr. (above) and his sister run
the business, which is famously featured on The Southern
BBQ Trail: A Southern Foodways Alliance
Documentary Project and in many food reviews.
Photographs courtesy of Amy C. Evans.
In challenging some of the overly negative imagery that surrounds Martin Luther King streets, we should not deny
the real strules and hardships that face people who live, work, and travel there. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the
Gulf Coast and displaced thousands of poor African Americans living in the B. W. Cooper Housing Project on
Martin Luther King Boulevard in New Orleans. A month after the storm, these apartments remained largely
abandoned, and few residents have returned. Well before Katrina, the Cooper apartments, once more popularly
known as the Calliope Projects, had suered deterioration, gang wars, drug tracking, and intense violence, and
Katrina simply exposed and exacerbated long-standing patterns of inequality and hyper-segregation. Jonathan
Tilove argued: “To name any street for King is to invite an accounting of how the street makes good on King’s
promise or mocks it.”12 The suering associated with New Orleans’s King Boulevard prompts us to consider how
the Civil Rights Movement, both in terms of how it has changed society and how it is remembered, is an evolving
and unnished project. Photograph courtesy of Rob Walker.
Martin Luther King Jr. Streets in the South 105
1. Epilogue quoted in Joshua Fischer, “Fifth Street Returns Despite Protests,” The Daily Reec-
tor, July 1, 2007, D2; Jonathan Tilove, Along Martin Luther King : Travels on Black America’s Main Street
(New York: Random House, 2003). On the struggle to nd the most appropriate street to identify
with King, see, for example, Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman, Civil Rights Memorials and
the Geography of Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press in association with Center for Ameri-
can Places, 2008); Derek H. Alderman, “Naming Streets after Martin Luther King, Jr.: No Easy
Road,” in Landscape and Race in the United States, ed. Richard Schein (New York: Routledge Press,
2006), 213–236; Derek H. Alderman, “Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Poli-
tics of Commemorating Martin Luther King in a Georgia County,” in The Civil Rights Movement
in American Memory, ed. Renee Romano and Leigh Raiford (Athens: University of Georgia Press,
2006), 67-95; Derek H. Alderman, “Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: The Politics of
Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. within the African-American Community,” Area 35,
no. 2 (2003): 163–173; Derek H. Alderman, “A Street Fit for a King: Naming Places and Commemo-
ration in the American South,” Professional Geographer 52, no. 4 (2000): 672–684.
2. Tilove, Along Martin Luther King, 5–6.
3. Filmmaker Marco Williams visited Cuba, Alabama, in his documentary, “MLK Boulevard:
The Concrete Dream” (Produced for Discovery Times Channel, 2003).
4. “Other Haarlem Giving King’s Name to Street,” Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1968, 2.
5. Wilbur Zelinsky, Nation into State: The Shifting S ymbolic Foundations of American Nationalism (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Maoz Azaryahu, “The Power of Commemorative
Street Names,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14 (1996): 311–330; Melvin Dixon, “The
Black Writer’s Use of Memory,” in History and Memory in African-American Culture, ed. Geneviève
Fabre and Robert O’Meally (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 18–27, 20.
6. Craig Pittman, “King’s Fight Still in the Streets: Renaming Roads Incites Controversy,” St.
Petersburg Times, April 23, 1990, B1.
7. Anonymous, “Controversy over Renaming Shames Communities,” St. Petersburg Times, April
22, 1990, 2.
8. Author interview with city councilor Sally Greene, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, May 24,
9. Stephen G. N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The Strule for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940–1980 (Athens:
University of Georgia Press, 2001).
10. Jim Yardley, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 14, 1995,
11. Matthew Mitchelson, “The Economic Geography of MLK Streets” (Master’s Thesis, East
Carolina University, 2005).
12. Tilove, Along Martin Luther King, 122.