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School Names as Cultural Arenas: The Naming of U.S. Public Schools after Martin Luther King, Jr

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The commemoration of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) is a growing movement in many American cities and towns. School naming is an important yet underanalyzed part of this project. A recent struggle in Riverside, California over naming a high school for MLK is used as a springboard for: (1) conceptualizing school names as cultural arenas for debating student and community identity and (2) conducting a general study of the types of U.S. public schools named for King. As illustrated in California, school naming can be interpreted by one social group as a means of integrating and inspiring students historically and viewed by another group as a means of drawing boundaries around students in terms of race and local heritage. According to 1997-1998 data, 110 public schools bear King's name. They are located most often in the central cities of large and mid-size urban areas. King's name is most frequently found on schools that teach early and middle grades. Schools named for Martin Luther King do not necessarily denote a "Black" school in terms of the racial characteristics of students, although they do not fully integrate Whites with African Americans or Whites with minorities in general. Naming schools for King is part of a larger refashioning of the urban cultural landscape as racial and ethnic groups increasingly seek public recognition of their historical achievements.
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Urban Geography, 2002, 23, 7, pp. 601–626.
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SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS: THE NAMING OF U.S.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
1
Derek H. Alderman
2
Department of Geography
East Carolina University
Abstract: The commemoration of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) is a
growing movement in many American cities and towns. School naming is an important yet
underanalyzed part of this project. A recent struggle in Riverside, California over naming a high
school for MLK is used as a springboard for: (1) conceptualizing school names as cultural arenas
for debating student and community identity and (2) conducting a general study of the types of
U.S. public schools named for King. As illustrated in California, school naming can be inter-
preted by one social group as a means of integrating and inspiring students historically and
viewed by another group as a means of drawing boundaries around students in terms of race and
local heritage. According to 1997–1998 data, 110 public schools bear King’s name. They are
located most often in the central cities of large and mid-size urban areas. King’s name is most
frequently found on schools that teach early and middle grades. Schools named for Martin
Luther King do not necessarily denote a “Black” school in terms of the racial characteristics of
students, although they do not fully integrate Whites with African Americans or Whites with
minorities in general. Naming schools for King is part of a larger refashioning of the urban cul-
tural landscape as racial and ethnic groups increasingly seek public recognition of their historical
achievements. [Key words: Martin Luther King Jr., school name, cultural arena, public com-
memoration, race.]
In 1998, members of the Riverside (California) Unified School Board voted unani-
mously to name a new high school after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
(MLK). Naming the school, which opened in September 1999, captured national media
attention and sparked vehement protests from many parents. Some parents feared that the
school (expected to be two-thirds White) might be perceived as being a predominantly
“Black” school, thus hurting their children’s chances of getting into good colleges. Ironi-
cally, they cited intolerance and racism in other regions of the United States as justifica-
tion for not naming the school for King. As one critic was quoted as saying: “In some
parts of the country, [King is] not looked upon as somebody famous”(Acosta, 1998a, p.
B1). During a two-hour public debate, citizens of Riverside interpreted and represented
the boundaries of Martin Luther King’s legacy in dramatically different ways. Opposing
parents saw little connection (and, in fact, feared the creation of one) in identifying stu-
1
I appreciate the helpful comments provided by the two anonymous reviewers of this paper. I also wish to
thank Brad Parker and Leigh Wilson who provided cartographic support. Finally, I owe a debt of thanks to Ger-
ald Ingalls and Donna G’Segner Alderman, who read and commented on earlier drafts of this manuscript. This
work is dedicated to my new son, Tyler.
2
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Derek H. Alderman, Department of Geogra-
phy, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858; telephone: 252-328-4013; fax: 252-328-6054; e-mail:
aldermand@mail.ecu.edu
602 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
dents from White, middle-class neighborhoods with an African American historical fig-
ure. Meanwhile, school board members emphasized the universal, cross-racial
importance of the civil rights leader. For example, school board president Lewis
Vanderzyl stated: “Whether he [King] was Black, White, green, or red, the things for
which he worked so hard are things that all Americans can stand to consider” (quoted in
Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1998, News section, p. 21). Another board member
argued that the commemoration of King “transcends the issue of race” (quoted in Gor-
man, 1998, p. A3). Although envisioned as a means of integration, the school naming
process exposed racial divisions within the community and significant variations in the
extent to which people identify with King and wish to be associated with his memory.
The commemoration of Martin Luther King is a growing movement in many Ameri-
can cities and towns. Although memorializing King began almost immediately after his
assassination in 1968, he rose to the status of official hero or commemorative icon when
the federal government designated his birthday a holiday in 1983. In addition to hosting
holiday-related activities, communities also honor the civil rights leader through the
building of museums and memorials (Gallagher, 1996; Dwyer, 2000). Embedding King’s
memory in physical space is a powerful form of commemoration, rivaling the holiday in
terms of what it can teach us about how Americans remember and interpret his life and
legacy (Rhea, 1997). Place naming is an important and under-analyzed component in the
larger geography of memorializing Martin Luther King. Place names perhaps lack what
Armada (1998) called the “rhetorical” power of museums, monuments, and memorials.
However, named places “merge the past they commemorate into ordinary settings of
human life” (Azarayahu, 1997, p. 481). Indeed, King’s name has been inscribed into
streets, schools, hospitals, parks, bridges, libraries, recreation centers, and numerous
other public places in the United States.
3
Streets and schools are the public texts most
frequently used in remembering him. Roger Stump (1988, p. 215), who is responsible for
the earliest study of this phenomenon, clearly established the analytical value of studying
places named for MLK.
The places named for …King thus represent more than simple memorials. They are
public symbols of community values, attitudes, and beliefs, revealing the character
of both the figure commemorated and the community that has honored him. Exam-
ination of patterns in the use of such placenames therefore offer insights into signif-
icant variations within the American social landscape. Further exploration of the
commemorative use of street names, school names, and similar elements of the
placename cover should extend our understanding of that landscape and the people
who created it.
Since the publication of Stump’s study 14 years ago, few scholars have taken up his call
for further research. While recent research efforts have focused on street naming (e.g.,
3
One even finds MLK landmarks in cities outside the United States. A few examples include a cultural center
in Havana, Cuba, a bridge in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, a children’s hospital in Germany, a park in Tel Aviv,
Israel, and a museum in Delhi, India (The King Center, 1999).
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 603
Alderman, 1996, 2000, 2002), little attention (if any) has been devoted to the attachment
of King’s name to schools and the cultural significance of this symbolic practice.
The events in Riverside are indicative of struggles waged in communities across the
country as they debate how best to remember the civil rights leader. As Karen Till (1999,
p. 254) would argue, localized territorial struggles such as seen in Riverside “often reflect
larger social (and power) disputes about who has the authority to create, define, interpret
and represent collective pasts through place.” The collective contributions of African
Americans certainly do not end or begin with King. In fact, the last two centuries have
seen numerous attempts to preserve and recognize the historical experiences of Blacks
(Ruffins, 1992). Arguably, however, King has become the most widely identified symbol
of the civil rights movement and Black heritage in general. While pubic opinion polls
show that many Americans—Black and White—recognize and admire MLK, they also
show significant deviations in the extent to which people feel a personal identification
with him and his legacy.
4
As evident in Riverside, people often disagree over whether
King should be remembered strictly as an advocate for the African American community
or as a figure relevant and historically important to everyone regardless of race. The dif-
ferent ways in which citizens respond to this issue provide a window to understanding
how Americans imagine themselves historically and culturally. Schools named after King
are battlefields in what has become popularly known as “culture wars.” Culture wars, as
asserted by Don Mitchell (2000, p. 5), “are battles over cultural identities—and the power
to shape, determine, and literally, emplace those identities” (original emphasis). Schools
names are important arenas for “emplacing” and debating the identities to which Mitchell
refers. Despite the important cultural politics at work in Riverside and other places, the
academic and lay communities lack an adequate knowledge of where school naming
fits—theoretically and empirically—into the contemporary urban cultural landscape.
In this paper, I have two major objectives. The first is to develop a framework for
understanding the ideological importance of school naming. School names are conceptu-
alized as cultural arenas for debating student and community identity. The case in Cali-
fornia illustrates how the commemoration of King can be interpreted by one group as a
means of bridging social and racial differences and viewed by another as a way of rein-
forcing these very boundaries. School naming allows us to study boundary making out-
side the traditional political context of state and international borders. As Newman and
Paasi (1998) found, scholars have begun to examine the social construction of boundaries
at a variety of scales and dimensions. School naming, and place naming in general, rep-
resent what they called an “identity narrative,” a means of drawing distinctions and
boundaries between “us” and “them” and “insider” versus “outsider.
Given the small amount of empirical research that has been done on school naming,
my second objective is more descriptive in nature. I conducted a general study of the
types of public schools identified by name with the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. A
search of a recently published educational database found King’s name attached to 110
public schools in the United States, with the frequency of named schools greatest in the
4
For instance, in a 1994 survey of 613 New York City residents, 68% responded that King’s life had influenced
them. While only 12% of African Americans claimed not to be influenced by King’s life, the figure rose to
41% for White respondents (Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 1994).
604 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
northern and western states. MLK schools are found disproportionately in the central cit-
ies of large and mid-size urban areas. Despite the importance that race and entrance to
college played in the California naming struggle, we know very little about the character-
istics of MLK schools in terms of grade level and racial composition. Evidence presented
in this paper suggests that the civil rights leader is most often identified with schools that
teach early and middle grades. In contrast to arguments offered during the Riverside
debate, schools named for King do not necessarily denote a “Black” school in terms of
the racial characteristics of students, although they do not fully integrate Whites with
African Americans or Whites with minorities in general.
My primary intention is to shed light on the naming of schools after MLK. At the same
time, however, a critical appraisal of these schools complements a growing literature that
examines the politics of public memory and analyzes how heritage and commemorative
landscapes are open to competing ideas about identity, memory, and place (e.g., Bodnar,
1992; Charlesworth, 1994; Johnson, 1995; Edensor, 1997; Hoelscher, 1998; Graham et
al., 2000). As Brian Ladd (1998) revealed in his analysis of Berlin, urban landscapes
serve as powerful symbols and repositories of memory. More recently, Srinivas (2001, p.
xxv) suggested that landscapes of urban memory “are a means of accessing how various
strata of society and different communities construct the metropolitan world.” This study
contributes to the literature by examining school names as powerful and contested memo-
rial spaces within cities and towns.
As memorial spaces, names attached to schools shed light on the changing and often
contentious nature of American collective memory. The commemoration of King is part
of a larger campaign carried out by activists to recognize the historical achievements of
not just African Americans but all minority groups. In fact, two years before Riverside
became embroiled in its naming controversy, school district officials in nearby Corona-
Norco Unified School District came under public fire for naming an elementary school
after the late farm labor union leader Cesar Chavez (Lovekin, 1996). This rewriting of
memory and space is a product of what Rhea (1997) has called the “race pride move-
ment.” The movement is affecting not only school names but also the geography of stat-
ues, museums, preserved sites, heritage trails, and festivals. In addition to a new high
school, Riverside has dedicated a street, statue, and a library collection in honor of Martin
Luther King, Jr. Although the race pride movement is evident across the urban cultural
landscape, schools are particularly important places for studying this activism. Perhaps
no other institution has debated and felt the effects of multiculturalism more than the
American public school (LaBelle and Ward, 1994).
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS
Schools, of course, are about educational and intellectual matters. As Claire Dwyer
(1993, p. 143) argued, however, the school is also a key site in the production of culture,
not only in transmitting a dominant culture to students but as a place where “cultural
meanings can be resisted or contested.” Other scholars have characterized schools as are-
nas, places where individuals or groups struggle with each other over the definition of
normative culture and cultural identities (Grufford, 1996; Vaughn, 1997; Bynum and
Thompson, 1999). In this paper, I extend this metaphor of arena to an analysis of school
naming. U.S. public schools are often embroiled in cultural debates because of the strong
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 605
institutional role they play in the socialization of students and the fact that local taxpayers
claim a stake in the schools they help finance (Merrett, 1999). Race relations have often
been at the center of these debates. According to Pathey-Chavez (1993), schools have
traditionally been viewed as arenas for cultural assimilation, places where minorities can
be integrated into the wider socio-cultural mainstream. After studying social relations in
a Los Angeles high school, however, she offered a more critical conceptualization. The
school is also an arena in which cultural boundaries are negotiated, “with ‘minority’ and
‘majority’ in conflict over the extent to which their versions of a cultural identity are to be
reproduced in the American education system” (Pathey-Chavez, 1993, p. 33). This ten-
sion between seeing schools as arenas for integration or boundary conflicts will resurface
as we discuss the politics of naming the Riverside high school for King.
Schools play an important role in shaping the collective memory and historical identity
of their students and the attendant community. While accomplished directly through
school curriculum development and the teaching of history per se, student conceptions of
the past are also shaped indirectly through the commemorative activities and symbols
woven into the everyday fabric of the school (e.g., school holidays, programs, bulletin
boards). The naming of schools after historical figures is a subtle yet powerful way of
communicating “the accomplishments of previous generations” and defining a set of folk
heroes (Goldstein, 1978, p. 119). By merging history and the physical environment, place
names and other spatial commemorations work to reify certain visions of the past, giving
them legitimacy and identification with the natural order of things (Azarayahu, 1996).
Analyzing school names as arenas for representing and debating the past is consistent
with what anthropologist Peter Nas (1998) has referred to as an “urban symbolic ecol-
ogy” approach. This approach, which focuses on the cultural dimensions of cities, exam-
ines “the social production of symbols in the urban arena” and the “resulting distribution
patterns and underlying mechanisms” associated with these symbols (Nas, 1998, p. 546).
The symbolic ecology of cities includes a wide variety of places of commemoration,
including but not limited to place names. Nas (1998, p. 547) emphasized the “polyvocal”
nature of urban commemorative symbols, suggesting that “they often possess an official
meaning, bearing the intentions of the creator or creators in mind, but informal references
may be attached to them, enforcing, neutralizing, and even counteracting the original
intention.” This point is significant to the Riverside case. The process of attaching King’s
name to the high school was open to multiple and competing interpretations about what it
symbolized. Some parents attached certain social references and racial meanings to the
school’s name that ran counter to the official intentions and motivations of school board
members. In further outlining the notion of urban symbolic ecology, Nas (1998) also
made a distinction between places of collective memory, such as places named after peo-
ple who played a direct role in the development of a city, and places of historic memory,
such as places named after people not related to a city’s history but of national or general
importance. Although some scholars (including myself) may disagree with how he used
the terms “collective” and “historic,” it is worth noting that communities often do make a
distinction between the memorialization of local versus national figures. As will be
shown in this paper, this very issue played a role in the Riverside debate.
The school naming in Riverside is part of a larger national movement to name (and
rename) schools after figures—both local and national—who symbolize the historical
achievements and struggles of minorities and other traditionally marginalized groups
606 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
(Abercrombie, 1998). New Orleans, Louisiana, and San Francisco, California, are two
cities where this school naming movement has been particularly evident. In Louisiana,
the Orleans Parish school board passed a policy that prohibited school names “honoring
slave owners and others who did not respect equal opportunity for all.” Passed in 1992,
the policy has led to more than 20 name changes, culminating with the highly publicized
removal of Georgia Washington’s name from an elementary school in 1997 (Dart, 1997,
p. D1). Accompanying the removal of names such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee
has been the identification of schools with prominent local leaders such as the city’s first
Black mayor, Ernest Morial, and nationally prominent African American figures such as
Arthur Ashe, Barbara Jordan, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall,
and of course Martin Luther King, Jr. In San Francisco, Drake Elementary School, the
namesake of the 16th century sea captain, has been renamed Malcolm X Academy. Cesar
Chavez Elementary School replaced the name Nathaniel Hawthorne. In addition to a
Martin Luther King, the city by the bay has identified schools with civil rights activist
Rosa Parks and slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. In 1996, San Francisco’s school
board president was quoted as saying: “We’re trying to give the schools names that have
contemporary meaning for our students, and reflect current values” (Asimov and Wallace,
1996, p. A13).
As evident in New Orleans and San Francisco, some people view school naming as an
important arena for remaking student knowledge and identification with the past. Accord-
ing to Katz (1995), place names promote identification and connection with certain social
goals and ideological interests. Berg and Kearns (1996) argued that place naming, as part
of both the symbolic and material order, represents a way of “norming” or legitimating
certain meanings attached to people and places. Because of their normative power, com-
memorative place names connect or “bridge” people together in a common historical
frame of reference as well as a geographic one. Stump (1988, p. 204) defined the specific
symbolic connections made when naming a school after someone: “The naming of a
school in honor of an individual has a special significance, creating an overt association
between the person and community. This act is essentially hortatory, calling on the com-
munity to follow the path set by the school’s namesake.
Proponents interpreted the naming of the Riverside high school in terms of students
identifying with and unifying around King’s ideals. As stated by school board member
Lewis Vanderzyl, who first proposed naming the high school for MLK:
My concern really was that we had here a leader [King] who exemplified some
ideals that I think are really important in America…. He exists in a way that I think
all of us can appreciate…[W]e recommended his name…because of the ideals for
which he stood, which we thought were appropriate for all students, and certainly
would set an example for all students and provide for them a body of writing, a
body of speeches that …would help to inspire kids, not just now but for generations
to come (CNN Talk Back Live, January 12, 1998).
Notice the emphasis Vanderzyl placed on integration (“an example for all students”) and
the value he invests in school naming as a means of socialization and education, particu-
larly when combined with King’s writings and teachings. Commentator Christine McCot-
trell (1998, p. 8) interpreted the naming of the Riverside school as an exercise in the
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 607
integrationist philosophy advocated by King. She also characterized opposition to the
naming as an indication of how far society still has to come in embracing this philosophy.
Public education rightly has one of its goals King’s vision that people should judge
one another by the quality of their character and not their color. If people are not
able to look beyond color when it comes to making decisions as small as naming a
school, what does that say for us as a whole?
Although place names promote connections, they are also used to divide or differenti-
ate places and, in turn, the people who come to be associated with those places. School
naming is a potentially controversial platform for public commemoration and reformation
of student/parent identity because naming is a form of boundary construction (Ruane and
Cerulo, 2000). For example, Myers (1996) examined the use of place naming in Zanzibar
as various social groups sought to make distinctions between neighborhoods and distance
themselves from these places culturally. The role of place names in creating boundaries is
related in part to their function as “intertext” or referents to other cultural meanings
(Entrikin, 1991, p. 56). “Place names are powerful linguistic symbols that evoke a wide
range of poignant associations, both mental and physical, illustrating how people learn to
think ‘with’ the landscape and not just ‘about’ it” (Thornton, 1997, p. 221). As Berg and
Kearns (1996) found in New Zealand, place names evoke symbolic meaning and can lead
to the coding of landscapes—the association of spaces with certain class, gender, or racial
groups.
While school board officials and other proponents interpreted the naming of River-
side’s high school as a means of integrating “all” students into a common identification
with Martin Luther King, others interpreted the school naming in terms of boundaries.
Naming a school for King was viewed by some of its opponents as demarcating the
school and hence its students as African American. As one opponent stated: “Martin
Luther King was a great man. But naming this school for him would be a mistake. Every-
body will think we have a Black school here” (Terry, 1998, p. A12). This statement serves
to racialize the meaning and importance of King’s commemoration, suggesting that a
school named for the civil rights leader is a “Black” thing. In effect, boundaries are placed
around whose identity can be connected with places named for King. The feelings
expressed by this person are very similar to the perspectives held by some citizens toward
naming streets after Martin Luther King, Jr. Opponents often identify MLK streets with
the Black community and, as with the school naming in Riverside, fear the social conno-
tations and consequences of this identification (Alderman, 2000).
In the case of schools and streets named after King, place naming is part of the discur-
sive construction of race—the representation of racial categories and boundaries as
important social and spatial distinctions (Omi and Winant, 1994; Buttny, 1999). While the
MLK school naming debate is involved in the social construction of “Blackness” as a
racial category, it is also involved in the construction of “Whiteness.” Whiteness, as sug-
gested in critical race theory, is a position of privilege constructed “by controlling domi-
nant values and institutions and, in particular, by occupying space within a segregated
social landscape” (Kobayashi and Peake, 2000, p. 393). Geographers are increasingly
interested in identifying and analyzing the geographic sites at which Whiteness is served
and imagined as mainstream and normal (Bonnet, 1997; Dwyer and Jones, 2000). While
608 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
there is little space to adequately delve into this topic, the Riverside case points to the role
that school names, and geography in general, play in the representation and maintenance
of a White American identity. At the very least, the debate in southern California demon-
strates, as Reingold and Wike (1998) found, that race and racial attitudes play an impor-
tant role in struggles over heritage and the public display of commemorative symbols.
Not all parents opposed to naming the Riverside high school after King cited the
importance of race. The debate, however, still revolved around the issue of boundaries
and the relevance of identifying the community (and its school) with the memory of King.
Several people interviewed by the media argued for naming the new high school after the
area’s citrus industry. One possible honoree mentioned was Eliza Tibbets, who was
responsible for bringing orange trees to Riverside in the 1880s (Terry, 1998). Opponents
to a King high school expressed the need to demarcate and prioritize civic heritage over
honoring, as Riverside parent Barbara Knudsen put it, “a national figure with no local
connection.” Knudsen said:
Well, it’s a matter of civic pride, really. The names of the new high school should
come from Riverside’s very noble, distinguished citrus heritage. More than any
other community in Southern California, we’ve pioneered the citrus industry….
We’re proud of that, and we think it’s sufficiently inspirational that we don’t need
to go out of town for an inspirational name for our high school (CNN Talk Back
Live, January 12, 1998).
Implicit in this call to recognize “heritage” is a de-prioritizing of the historical impact of
King when compared to local efforts to develop the region. The construction and repre-
sentation of heritage, as suggested by Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996, p. 21), is inher-
ently exclusionary.
At its simplest, all heritage is someone’s heritage and therefore logically not some-
one else’s: the original meaning of an inheritance implies the existence of disinher-
itance and by extension any creation of heritage from the past disinherits someone
completely or partially, actively or potentially.
By characterizing the commemoration of King as “going out of town” for inspiration, the
aforementioned parent evokes a vision of heritage that actively disinherits Martin Luther
King from Riverside’s past and defines the civil rights leader as an outsider—one beyond
the historical boundaries or interests of the community. On the other hand, as one com-
mentator sarcastically pointed out, naming the Riverside high school for MLK could be
seen as appropriate since conservative Whites in the area frequently used the civil rights
leader’s words to justify and gain passage of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative
action policies in California (Lee, 1998). Running throughout these debates about
whether King is a locally relevant historical figure is a “politics of scale,” a socially nego-
tiated process of determining the geographic extent or resolution at which King should be
memorialized (Alderman, 1996).
Fittingly, the historical legacy of Martin Luther King is one of boundaries and his
efforts to tear down the walls of racial segregation and inequality. Also fittingly, the pub-
lic school served as a major cultural and political arena during the civil rights movement.
Ironically, King’s commemoration is still about African Americans and other activists
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 609
struggling to redefine the bounds of social interaction and perception in America’s
schools. In summary, I have suggested that public schools are more than places devoted
to the intellectual development of students. They are also sites of socialization and arenas
for constructing and debating the cultural identity of students and the attendant commu-
nity. Events in Riverside illustrate how school names can be interpreted by one social
group as a means of integrating and inspiring students historically and viewed by another
group as a means of drawing racial boundaries around students and discriminating against
them. My intent in the next several sections is to document the characteristics of MLK
public schools in the U.S., examining the actual boundaries that surround King’s com-
memoration in terms of location, grade level, and race—factors that potentially affect the
politics of the naming process.
THE FREQUENCY OF MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Despite the national attention that the Riverside debate attracted in 1998, we know
little about the likelihood of finding schools identified with King. Using data from the late
1980s, Roger Stump (1988) found 59 public and private schools in the United States iden-
tified with the civil rights leader. In this study, I examined only public schools. This does
not deny the importance of naming patterns among private schools. However, the naming
of private institutions differs, in process and politics, from the naming of public landscape
features. Moreover, a recent search of private schools uncovered only three facilities
named for King. They are in Baton Rouge (LA), Cincinnati (OH), and New Rochelle
(NY) (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999b).
The Common Core of Data, 1997–1998 (National Center for Education Statistics,
2000a) was used to identify the frequency and location of public schools named after
Martin Luther King, Jr. and to collect information on the race and grade level of students
attending these schools. The data provide insight into the distribution of MLK schools at
the time that the Riverside naming debate was underway. The Common Core of Data,
which is the Department of Educations primary database on public elementary and sec-
ondary education in the United States, contains information collected from annual sur-
veys of all public elementary and secondary schools (approximately 90,000) and school
districts (approximately 16,000). The data are comparable across cities and states.
As of the 1997–1998 academic year, 110 public schools in the nation were named after
Martin Luther King. Of these schools, 75 were listed in the database as including Martin
Luther King, MLK, or ML King in their names. The remaining 35 schools were listed in
the database as simply “King” schools. A search of school web pages and phone inter-
views with school officials confirmed that these schools were named for the civil rights
leader. To place this figure in a meaningful comparative context, the Common Core of
Data was used to identify the number of schools named after other noteworthy historical
figures (Table 1). The naming of schools after King is a smaller and younger commemo-
rative movement compared to the number of schools named for U.S. presidents such as
Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. However, MLK schools
are much closer in frequency to schools named for President John F. Kennedy, a contem-
porary of King. The statistical importance of naming schools in honor of Martin Luther
King becomes even more apparent when one examines the number of schools named for
nonpresidential figures in history. This selected list of figures includes farm labor leader
610 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
Cesar Chavez; Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis; and African Amer-
ican activists Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and
Arthur Ashe.
The 110 MLK schools are distributed unevenly across 36 states and the District of
Columbia (Fig. 1). However, eight states contribute 59% of these schools. They include
California (22), New Jersey (9), Michigan (8), Illinois (7), New York (7), Florida (4),
Massachusetts (4), and Ohio (4). These findings are consistent with results from Stump
(1988), who found the largest number of MLK schools in the northern and western parts
of the country. He found, as this study does, a relative scarcity of schools named after
King in the Southeast—despite the fact that many of these states were early battlegrounds
in the civil rights movement and that African Americans make up a significant proportion
of the population in these states. For example, Georgia—King’s home state and the loca-
tion of a national historical site dedicated to his memory—had named only two public
T
ABLE 1.—NUMBER OF U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS NAMED
FOR SELECTED FIGURES IN AMERICAN HISTORY,
1997–1998
Historical figure
Number of
named schools
Abraham Lincoln 676
George Washington 601
Thomas Jefferson 458
John F. Kennedy 190
Martin Luther King, Jr. 110
Cesar Chavez 25
Thurgood Marshall 25
Robert E. Lee 20
Frederick Douglass 16
Booker T. Washington 13
George Washington Carver 8
Harriet Tubman 8
Rosa Parks 6
Jefferson Davis 6
Langston Hughes 6
Malcolm X 5
Barbara Jordan 4
Arthur Ashe 3
Source: Compiled by author using The Common Core of Data.
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 611
schools after the civil rights leader by 1997–1998 (in Macon and Atlanta).
5
It is worth
noting that while Georgia has not named many schools, it does lead the nation in naming
streets for Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alderman, 2000). Stump (1988, pp. 208–209) sug-
gested that southern Whites are more likely to resist the naming of schools (as opposed to
streets) because it was those “institutions that figured most prominently in the conflict
over racial integration.
Examining only the absolute or raw number of MLK schools can be misleading given
that states vary by the number of schools. Consequently, the frequency of MLK schools
was calculated as a percentage of all schools found in each state. Data on the total number
of schools by state were collected from the Common Core of Data to ensure consistency.
The percentage of schools in each state named for King was then divided by the percent-
age of all U.S. schools that are named for King (0.12 %), resulting in the calculation of a
location quotient. A location quotient allows us to compare the proportion of MLK
schools in each state to the national average. A location quotient provides a more stan-
dardized picture of the frequency of naming schools for King relative to the total number
of schools in each state and the overall level of naming within the country. For instance,
a quotient of 1 indicates that the proportion of schools named for King in a particular state
is representative of or equal to the proportion for the entire nation. A location quotient
of less than 1 indicates an underrepresentation of MLK schools within a state when
5
Two Georgia cities have named schools for Martin Luther King, Jr., since the collection of data for this
paper—Decatur and Albany. One of these (Decatur) is a high school, although the vast majority of its students
are African American.
Fig. 1. Location of MLK Public Schools in the United States, 1997–1998. Source: Compiled by author
using The Common Core of Data, 19971998.
612 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
compared to the national norm. In contrast, a quotient of greater than 1 indicates that
MLK schools are present in greater than expected numbers, an overrepresentation when
compared to the average for the country.
An examination of location quotients (Table 2) challenges the primacy of California
within the geography of naming public schools after the civil rights leader. When exam-
ining proportional representation rather than absolute numbers, naming public schools
appears more important in the District of Columbia (4.87) and states such as Delaware
(4.48), New Jersey (3.24), and Rhode Island (2.65) than California. However it is worth
noting that California (with a location quotient of 2.24) still has a disproportionately large
presence of MLK schools when compared to the trend for the nation. In total, 19 states
have a larger proportion of named schools than we would expect nationally. The South
claims only three of these states (Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana). Six are western
states and the remaining ten states are concentrated in the Northeast and Northcentral
portions of the country.
MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY CITY SIZE AND INTRA-URBAN LOCATION
The Common Core of Data provides information on the nation’s public schools by city
size and general intraurban location. Such data give insight into the likelihood of finding
MLK schools across large and small cities and in central city locations as well as urban
fringe/suburban locations. Table 3 shows the percentage distribution of MLK schools by
locale and, for the purpose of comparison, the distribution of all U.S. public schools
within these same locale categories. During the 1997–1998 academic year, 56% of
schools named for King were associated with large cities (defined in the database as being
within a Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) or Metropolitan Statistical
Area (MSA) in which the central city has a population equal to or greater than 250,000).
An additional 39% of schools were associated with mid-size cities (defined as being
within a CMSA or MSA in which the population of the central city is less than 250,000).
King schools occupy central city locations 74% of the time, divided almost equally
between mid-size and large urban designations. In fact, King’s name is over 2.5 times
more likely to be attached to schools in large and mid-size central cities than what we
would expect nationally. Consequently, there is a significant underrepresentation of
named schools in the urban fringe or suburb locations of large and mid-size cities. Of
schools named for King, 4% were categorized as being in “large towns,” an incorporated
place or Census designated place with population greater than or equal to 25,000 and
located outside a CMSA or MSA. This is higher than the percentage of all U.S. public
schools found in such locales. The greatest absence of public schools named for King is
in small towns and rural areas. Small towns are defined in the Common Core database as
an incorporated place or Census designated place with population less than 25,000 and
greater than or equal to 2,500 and located outside a CMSA or MSA. A rural area is any
incorporated place, Census designated place, or nonplace territory designated as rural by
the Census Bureau. Of all U.S. public schools, 13% are located in “small towns” and 25%
in “rural” locations. However, no schools named for King are found within the “small
town” locale categorization and only one MLK school was designated as “rural” (a voca-
tional school in Woodville, Mississippi). These results depart somewhat from Alderman
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 613
T
ABLE 2.—DISTRIBUTION AND CONCENTRATION OF MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS
BY
STATE (SORTED BY LOCATION QUOTIENT), 1997–1998
State
Total
schools
MLK
schools
MLK
schools (%)
Location
quotient
District of Columbia 171 1 0.585 4.87
Delaware 186 1 0.538 4.48
New Jersey 2314 9 0.389 3.24
Rhode Island 314 1 0.318 2.65
California 8182 22 0.269 2.24
Maryland 1300 3 0.231 1.92
Nevada 455 1 0.220 1.83
Nebraska 1375 3 0.218 1.82
Massachusetts 1868 4 0.214 1.78
Michigan 3862 8 0.207 1.73
Alaska 506 1 0.198 1.65
Mississippi 1013 2 0.197 1.65
Colorado 1562 3 0.192 1.60
Connecticut 1080 2 0.185 1.54
New York 4208 7 0.166 1.39
Illinois 4244 7 0.165 1.37
Florida 2888 4 0.139 1.15
Washington 2180 3 0.138 1.15
Louisiana 1488 2 0.134 1.12
New Mexico 745 1 0.134 1.12
Georgia 1823 2 0.110 0.91
Ohio 3945 4 0.101 0.84
Wisconsin 2112 2 0.095 0.79
Pennsylvania 3181 3 0.094 0.79
Arkansas 1112 1 0.090 0.75
Oregon 1253 1 0.080 0.67
Alabama 1353 1 0.074 0.62
Kentucky 1418 1 0.071 0.59
Arizona 1429 1 0.070 0.58
Iowa 1552 1 0.064 0.54
Tennessee 1571 1 0.064 0.53
Oklahoma 1840 1 0.054 0.45
Virginia 1910 1 0.052 0.44
Indiana 1926 1 0.052 0.43
Minnesota 2260 1 0.044 0.37
Missouri 2301 1 0.043 0.36
Texas 7090 2 0.028 0.24
Source: Compiled by author using The Common Core of Data.
614 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
(2000), who found that while the naming of streets after King was best represented in
metropolitan areas, the practice was also common in nonmetropolitan areas.
The strong association between King’s commemoration and school naming in central
city locales is of more than just passing empirical interest. Recent statistics point to a
strong relationship between a school’s location and the racial/ethnic composition of its
student membership. Since 1970, African Americans have accounted for over 30% of
students attending public schools in central cities. Even more significant, however, has
been the increase in Hispanic students attending central city public schools, from 1 in 10
students in 1972 to 1 in 4 in 1996 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000c, p. 1).
Given this trend, we should perhaps expect to find a high proportion of minority students
in MLK schools and it is likely that this minority student membership will not be entirely
African American.
Central city public schools also face significant resource challenges. Overall, 45% of
students in the country’s central city public schools receive free or reduced price lunches
(National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b, p. 427). In the case of central city MLK
schools, 54% of students receive free or reduced price lunches. In 1999, Journalist Amber
Arellano discussed the lack of instructional technology in Detroit’s Martin Luther King
Jr. Senior High School, contrasting it to a better-equipped suburban Martin Luther King
T
ABLE 3.—DISTRIBUTION OF MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY LOCALE
AND HIGHEST GRADE TAUGHT, 1997–1998
a
Locale and highest grade taught
MLK public
schools (%)
U.S. public
schools (%)
School locale
Large central city 38 13
Mid-size central city 36 15
Urban fringe of large city 18 24
Urban fringe of mid-size city 3 9
Large town 4 2
Small town 0 13
Rural 1 25
Highest grade taught
Third grade 5 2
Fourth grade 6 4
Fifth grade 31 25
Sixth grade 21 19
Eighth grade 28 19
Twelfth grade 10 23
a
Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding; not all grade categories are
listed.
Source: Compiled by the author using The Common Core of Data.
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 615
Academy in Mt. Clemens, Michigan (Arellano, 1999). In 1989, Martin Luther King Junior
High School and other East St. Louis public schools were evacuated after being flooded
with sewage from two failed pumping stations. The East St. Louis school district closed the
King school and one next door (named after John F. Kennedy) in 1992 because of constant
flooding and water backup problems. The King school is currently under demolition
(Nathaniel Anderson, superintendent, East St. Louis School District 189, pers. comm.,
January 3, 2001). Although not included in the data used in this study, the Martin Luther
King High School in Riverside represents a departure from the depressed “central city”
pattern. Located in an urban fringe or suburban area, the $43 million school boasts of hav-
ing a large technology infrastructure, a terraced outdoor amphitheater, and an innovative
curriculum that includes computer repair and hotel management courses (Leuer, 1999b).
Location affects more than just the ethnic composition and financial viability of a
school. Central cities are often perceived as inferior, marginalized areas, which may give
insight into the negative image that MLK schools have in the minds of some Americans.
This perception was clearly evident in an article written by conservative Black radio talk-
show host Ken Hamblin, who appeared on the Montel Williams television show to dis-
cuss naming the Riverside school for King.
People in Riverside believe that naming their majority White school after Dr. Mar-
tin Luther King, Jr., would hinder their children’s chances for college because their
middle-class kids—Black and White alike—would be perceived as having attended
a low income, low achievement school with a majority of African-American stu-
dents.… It’s one thing to start your life and struggle beyond the odds in an inner-
city school called Martin Luther King High School.… It’s quite another thing to
strap thousands of graduating seniors with the need to explain on college applica-
tions how “their Martin Luther King High School” was indeed mainstream and that
their academic record from that school was on par with other mainstream schools
(Hamblin, 1998, p. C7, emphasis added).
According to Anita Calhoun, former principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary
School in San Diego, many people share the perception articulated by Hamblin. In 1990,
she was quoted as saying: “They [the public] think any school that’s named after Dr. King
would an inner-city area, and I think in most cases across the country they would be
right.… I think that’s a tragedy. I think Dr. King’s name should be in all places and all
neighborhoods” (San Diego Union-Tribune, January 15, 1990, p. C1). Quite possibly,
parents in Riverside associated a school named for King not only with “Black” students
but also with the urban locations that are often associated with racial and ethnic minority
populations. This was perhaps in the mind of a person who made an anonymous call to
the Riverside school board office when he or she said: “We are not L.A…there aren’t
enough Blacks in this area to name it [school] MLK” (Acosta 1998b, p. B3). As Holloway
(1998) has suggested, a meaningful analysis of racial discrimination cannot take place
outside the context of neighborhood characteristics and place-based discrimination. Per-
haps, naming schools for King exposes the geographically contingent nature of how
Americans perceive race and define its social importance.
On the other hand, the concentration of MLK schools in central city locations may not
be entirely negative. Carolyn Huff, principal of Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Middle
616 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
School, suggested that her school has benefited from being identified with King’s mem-
ory and adopting his principles of nonviolence. She remarked: “As you know, in urban
schools, there tends to be some violence, and it’s made a difference having our school
being the school of peace in the name of the man [King]” (CNN Talk Back Live, January
12, 1998). Indeed, King’s name is attached to several central-city schools committed to
improving life and education within their communities. For instance, a career center in
Anchorage, Alaska, uses its centrally located facilities to train secondary school youth in
advanced job skills. Louisville’s MLK Elementary—which is located in a predominantly
African American part of the city and near an empowerment zone—is a magnet program
that focuses on gifted education, visual/performing arts, and technology. Its motto reads
“Where Dreams Come True.” King’s name can be found on an applied science magnet
school located in the southern section of downtown Syracuse. The school claims to be the
only community school in central New York, offering an array of services and programs
to parents, students, and others living near the school such as neighborhood education and
training for work and a unified health care program. Clearly, additional work is needed to
understand the negative and positive implications of identifying largely central-city
schools with King’s name.
MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY GRADE LEVEL
As evident in the Riverside controversy, opponents represented the naming of schools
after Martin Luther King—whether legitimately or not—in terms of how it may hurt col-
lege entrance opportunities for students. Conceivably, identifying students with King’s
memory may grow more contentious and less frequent as one moves up the grade-level
hierarchy. Findings appear to substantiate this hypothesis. Table 3 shows the percentage
distribution of MLK schools by highest grade taught and, for the purpose of comparison,
the distribution of all U.S. public schools by these same grade-level categories. Only 11
(10%) of 110 public schools identified with Martin Luther King, Jr., listed twelfth grade
as the highest academic level taught in the school—a significantly lower figure than the
23% of US public schools at this same grade level. Over one-third of named schools
reported student memberships that were not taught beyond the fifth grade. When com-
pared to the national trend there is an over-representation of MLK schools that teach up
to the eighth grade. When simply analyzing the names of schools, King’s name is most
often attached to “elementary” and “middle” schools—almost 70% of the time. It is worth
noting, however, that grade definitions of “elementary” schools as well as “middle,” “jun-
ior high,” and “high schools” vary by city, state, and region.
What is especially apparent is a weak association between the commemoration of
King and the naming of secondary educational institutions that immediately precede col-
lege entrance. The naming of a high school may be more controversial than naming lower
grade level schools because high school students (and their parents) feel they have a
greater personal stake in cultivating a distinctive school identity. The importance placed
on constructing such an identity is evident, for example, in the rivalry of high school
athletics. Barbara Knudsen, who opposed naming the Riverside school for King, dis-
cussed the importance of high schools reflecting and serving “local” community identity.
On this point, she argued: “A high school really becomes the center of gravity in a com-
munity much more than an elementary or middle school does. The other four high schools
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 617
[in Riverside] have names that have strictly a local connection.… This is a matter of
hometown pride” (CNN Talk Back Live, January 12, 1998).
School board/district policies toward naming partly explain the patterns seen in the
grade level of MLK schools. For example, according to the naming guidelines adopted by
the public school system of Albuquerque, New Mexico, high schools are to be named
after geographic locations, middle schools after late U.S. presidents, and elementary
schools after persons “who have provided positive role models for APS students” (Albu-
querque Public Schools, 1996). Jefferson County School District in Colorado (1999) has
also put some parameters on naming, although not as strict as Albuquerque. Elementary
and middle schools can be named for outstanding citizens in the community, but senior
high schools will be named for the locality or community in which they are located. The
majority of schools in Arizona’s Gilbert Unified School District are named after subdivi-
sions. The superintendent of Gilbert was quoted as saying: “We don’t name schools after
people because it creates hard feelings” (Abercrombie, 1998, p. 11). Lake Washington
School District #414 in Redmond, Washington, employs a two-tier approach to naming
new facilities (Lake Washington School District #414, 1999). According to its board pol-
icies, elementary schools are to be named for “deceased persons famous for their work in
science, the humanities, letters, or education.” Secondary schools are to be named after
the neighborhood or district in which the school is located. If named for a person, second-
ary schools are to be identified with someone related to local, area, or Pacific Northwest
history. In an attempt to reach out to minorities, the Lake Washington School District
mandates that one out of every three new elementary schools shall be named for a minor-
ity group member. While much more inclusive than naming policies in other places; it
still confines, nevertheless, the place name commemoration of historical figures—partic-
ularly “nonlocal” minority figures such as King—to elementary schools. Some school
systems such as in Pitt County, North Carolina, prohibit naming any schools after people
(Clancey, 2001).
RACIAL COMPOSITION OF MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Although some social actors, such as those in Riverside, hold strong views about the
racial connotations of naming schools after Martin Luther King, we actually know little
about the race and ethnicity of students attending such schools. According to statistics
collected from The Common Core of Data—67,825 students were enrolled in public
schools named after King in 1997–1998. Of these students, 54% were African American,
21% White, 19% Hispanic, 5% Asian or Pacific Islander, and less than 1% American
Indian or Alaskan native. Figure 2 gives a more detailed look at the distribution of schools
by the relative size of African American student populations within each school. African
Americans represent a majority of student membership in 58 (or 53%) of 109 MLK pub-
lic schools that have available racial data. Blacks contribute over three-quarters of the
student body in 39% of MLK schools. Of the 58 named schools with an African Ameri-
can majority, 43% have enrollment in which Blacks represent 90% or more of the total.
Seven of the nation’s MLK public schools were entirely African American in 1997–1998.
Two of the schools are in Detroit (MI) and the remaining five are located in Baltimore
(MD), Chicago (IL), Gary (IN), Dixmoor (IL), and Tuscaloosa (AL).
618 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
Although African Americans do make up a majority (although not an overwhelming
majority) of all students enrolled in MLK schools, finding a school named for King does
not necessarily mean that African Americans will make up most of the student member-
ship. In fact, of the 109 MLK schools examined, twenty eight (or 26%) had student mem-
berships in which African Americans made up a quarter or less of the total. In twelve of
these twenty-eight schools, Blacks contributed less than 10% of the total student popula-
tion. While Whites contributed a quarter or less of student membership in 64% of schools
bearing King’s name, they did make up a majority of the student enrollment in 22% of
schools. In 1997–1998, Whites represented three-quarters or more of the student mem-
bership in six schools. They are located in Anchorage (AK), Greenbay (WI), Milton (FL),
Colorado Springs (CO), Galesburg (IL), and Las Vegas (NV). Hispanics constitute a
majority of student membership in eleven (10%) of the public schools named for King.
Eight of these eleven schools are located in California. Although not as frequently found
in King schools as Hispanics, students classified as Asian/Pacific Islanders made up 42%
and 41% of total MLK school enrollment in San Francisco and Sacramento respectively.
African American students represented a majority in only four of California’s 22 public
schools named for King (Oakland with 81%, Los Angeles with 73%, Sausalito with 67%,
and Richmond with 65%). In the case of Davis, California—where King’s named is
attached to an alternative high school—Whites actually constituted a majority (55%) of
the total student membership in 1997–1998. However, until the opening of the Riverside
school in 1999, the Davis school and one in Nashville (TN) were the nation’s only MLK
high schools with a White majority.
African Americans certainly have a strong statistical presence in King schools. Yet, the
commemoration of Martin Luther King is more likely to signify that a large proportion of
the student membership is “minority,including a significant presence of Hispanic Amer-
icans and, to a lesser degree, Asian Americans. Overall, “minority” students constitute a
majority of student membership in 78% of the country’s MLK schools. Of named
schools, 26 (24%) of named schools are composed of 99% or more minority students. It
is worth noting that this pattern is not necessarily unique to King schools. Overall, the
country has seen an increase in the percentage of minority enrollment, leading to a
Fig. 2. Number of U.S. MLK Public Schools by Percentage of African American Students, 1997–1998.
Source: Compiled by author using The Common Core of Data.
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 619
“racial-ethnic isolation” in public schools (National Center for Education Statistics,
1999a, p. 120). In California, the association of King’s memory with Hispanic and Asian
students as well as African Americans is not surprising given the state’s prevailing demo-
graphic trends (Table 4). Of students in MLK schools, 47% are identified as Hispanic,
compared to 41% of students in all California public schools in 1997–1998. Asian/Pacific
Islanders contribute 13% of MLK school enrollment in California, two percentage points
higher than the trend found in all of the state’s public schools. Nevertheless, when com-
pared to statewide demographic trends in enrollment, King schools in California do show
a significant overrepresentation of African Americans and a significant underrepresenta-
tion of Whites.
In addition to data on the racial/ethnic composition of public schools, The Common
Core of Data provides demographic indicators for the area served by a public school dis-
trict or agency. This information, derived from 1990 U.S. Census data, allows us to com-
pare the racial/ethnic characteristics of students attending a MLK school with the overall
demographic makeup of children living in households within the school’s district. A
child, in this instance, is defined as a never-married child less than 18 years who is a son
or daughter by birth, a stepchild, or an adopted child of the householder. Findings indicate
that 83% of the time a school named for King has a higher percentage of African Ameri-
cans than the area served by its respective school district. Indeed, on average, the relative
size of Black student populations in MLK schools is 21 percentage points higher than the
proportion of Black children found in the larger school district area. On average, African
Americans contribute a little over one-third of children in school districts that contain a
school named for King. However, within the average MLK school, Blacks comprise well
over half (55%) of the student membership. In 88% of cases, the frequency of finding
White students in a King school is lower than the frequency of finding White children
living in the surrounding district. In the case of Toledo (OH), Utica (NY), and Fort Lau-
derdale (FL), the percentage of Whites enrolled in MLK schools is over 60 points lower
than the percentage of White children found in the larger school district area. While the
average school named for King can expect Whites to makeup approximately 23% of its
T
ABLE 4.—RACIAL COMPOSITION OF MLK PUBLIC SCHOOLS
VERSUS ALL PUBLIC SCHOOLS, CALIFORNIA, 1997–1998
Racial/ethnic group
Students in MLK public
schools (%)
a
Students in all public schools
(%)
Hispanic 47 41
Black 26 9
White 14 39
Asian/Pacific Islander 13 11
American Indian .5 .9
Minority 86 61
a
Percentages do not sum to 100 because of rounding.
Source: Compiled by author using The Common Core of Data.
620 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
student membership, its larger school district will serve an area in which Whites contrib-
ute 47% of the children population living in households.
While it is certainly inaccurate to label every MLK school as predominantly Black, it
appears reasonable to suggest that most of the schools are more African American than
their surrounding districts. In this respect, Riverside’s Martin Luther King High repre-
sents a significant departure from the national pattern. In 1999, the racial characteristics
of students attending the southern California school, which was 64% White and 10%
Black, was almost proportional to the racial characteristics of children found living within
the entire Riverside Unified School District, according to 1990 census figures. Clearly,
more work is needed to determine the relative location of these named schools. How are
MLK schools situated within the racial geography of their respective cities and towns? Do
schools named for King enforce or, in the case of Riverside, challenge what Rhea (1997)
called the “segregation of memory” within America? There are at least two major points
to keep in mind as researchers examine this issue further. First, the racial/ethnic charac-
teristics of schools and their school districts are in constant flux. Future work should
examine changes and patterns in the racial/ethnic makeup of named schools in relation to
larger population shifts within cities and their school districts. Second, the racial compo-
sition of schools is not something that just evolves naturally. The attendance boundaries
of schools are constantly constructed, reconstructed, and contested as communities—
whether voluntarily or because of court order—struggle to enact racial balance in schools.
However, some researchers have pointed to the “resegregation” of America’s public
schools in the 1990s, resulting in part from Supreme Court decisions that make it easier
for districts to be released from desegregation and bussing orders (Zehr, 2001). Perhaps
the racial and ethnic separation evident in MLK schools is part of this larger trend. At any
rate, it would be interesting to investigate how the presence of a school named in honor of
Martin Luther King affects the way in which school board officials construct and recon-
struct the racial geography of schools, particularly if some of them share the views
expressed by some parents in Riverside who associated King strictly with the Black com-
munity and African American students.
CONCLUDING REMARKS
The struggle to name the Riverside school in 1998 sheds light on how people see and
use school names as a means of integrating and orienting students around certain histori-
cal and cultural identifications. It is perhaps still too early to determine if the southern
California school will rally students around the civil rights leader and his legacy. On the
one hand, when the school opened in September 1999, a sophomore student seemed to
dismiss the importance of King when she stated that: “It doesn’t matter what the school’s
called…. It’s exciting to open a school and a privilege for us to go here” (Leuer, 1999a, p.
B02). In February of 2000, two vandals showed their dissatisfaction with King’s name-
sake by spray-painting it with swastikas and racial epithets directed toward African
Americans. One of the vandals was a King High student (Lee, 2001). On the other hand,
the school honored King by painting a mural in the lobby and teachers supposedly incor-
porate the civil rights leader’s ideals and philosophies into classroom lessons throughout
the year (Leuer, 1999a). Future studies should examine the extent to which MLK schools
incorporate their commemorative identity into everyday school and community activities.
SCHOOL NAMES AS CULTURAL ARENAS 621
In searching the web pages of many schools named for King, I found significant variation
in patterns of school identification. Some named schools barely mention having a cultural
linkage with him while others have written the school’s very mission statement around
the MLK legacy. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Cali-
fornia is “committed to practicing and teaching the ideals of King: equality, academic
excellence, community action, respect for self and others, non-violence, and leadership
based on democratic principles.” MLK Elementary in Washington, DC claims that “The
Dream is Still Alive” while King Elementary in the inner city of South Central Los Ange-
les pledges, “We have a dream…everyone succeeds at King!” While making little men-
tion of King himself, the civil rights leader’s namesake in Galesburg, Illinois calls itself
“The Peaceable KINGdom.
The Riverside dispute also shows how school names can be interpreted and fought
over as social boundaries, functioning as a form of exclusion rather than inclusion.
Empirically, MLK schools transcend being labeled “Black” but do not fully integrate
Whites with African Americans or Whites with minorities in general. This pattern is not
likely to change as long as named schools are found most often in the central cities of
large and mid-size cities. There are also bounds being placed on the grade level of schools
identified with King, perhaps reflecting a trend among school boards to avoid the contro-
versy of naming high schools after nonlocal figures or any person for that matter. The
controversy over naming a school for MLK provoked a grand jury investigation and sub-
sequent clarification of Riverside’s school naming, which may place more stringent
boundaries on future naming requests (Acosta, 1998c).
Future work should adopt a more critical approach to the construction of racial identity
within public schools and the role that school names play in the representation and reaf-
firmation of Whiteness and Blackness in America. Arguably, in some cases, the associa-
tion of Kings memory with a largely African American student body may be seen as an
opportunity rather than a drawback. For instance, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elemen-
tary School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—which is an African American immersion
school—focuses on the instructional needs of Black students, who made up 98% of the
school’s enrollment in 1997–1998. Its curriculum and faculty focus on African American
culture, history, and learning styles. Interestingly, some African Americans could inter-
pret the naming of largely White schools after King as a form of cultural appropriation.
When the Riverside high school opened in 1999, one student remarked that: “I think there
should be a few more Black people [on campus], because the school is Martin Luther
King” (Leuer, 1999b, p. B1). Of course, schools named for King are about more than
simply Black versus White relations and identities. The strong presence of non-African
American minorities in King schools, particularly those in California, demands a multi-
ethnic study of King’s commemoration. For instance, do Hispanic and Asian parents and
children embrace MLK as a hero for all Americans or do they consider him a leader for
African American civil rights? By the same token, do African Americans identify with
other minority historical figures? When the San Antonio City Council proposed to
rename a prominent downtown street after Cesar Chavez, Black leaders opposed the pro-
posal since the street in question passes through the African American community (Her-
rick, 1999). In this instance, African Americans—like White parents in Riverside—were
placing clear boundaries around the relevance of history and memory as related to race
and ethnicity.
622 DEREK H. ALDERMAN
Some critics have argued that the naming of schools after King and other controversial
figures is wrong, suggesting that these schools are being used as a battleground for polit-
ical differences. In fairness, however, school naming has long been involved in the cul-
tural politics of race relations, not always to the benefit of African Americans. For
example, when local authorities in Bulloch County, Georgia, began racially desegregating
public schools in 1971, African American students boycotted the first six days of the
school year. The boycott came in reaction to what they considered unfair integration pol-
icies. In addition to the demotion of principals of formerly all-Black schools to assistant
roles and reductions in the number of Black teachers, African Americans objected to the
county changing the names of formerly all-Black schools (Statesboro Herald, August 30,
1971, p. 1). While the boycott proved short-lived and unsuccessful, it demonstrates the
need for examining the larger geo-historical context of recent school name changes.
While critics are wrong to imply that school naming has just recently become politi-
cized, they do raise some interesting questions about the ultimate value of changes like
those that we have seen in Riverside. In what specific ways, if any, has naming schools for
King led to a positive change in the lives and attitudes of students? One observer pointed
to this issue:
For about 25 years I’ve seen numerous school name changes, in addition to the
names that go on new schools. The theory is that if you name a school for someone
heroic, like Martin Luther King, the students feel obligated to put forth their best
effort. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen that way. Just as a new edifice doesn’t
guarantee higher academic achievement, neither will a prominent name. Just look
at the many low-performing schools named for Dr. King. To paraphrase William
Shakespeare, a school building by any other name performs the same. More impor-
tant than the name inscribed in the building is what’s going on inside. (The Tampa
Tribune, November 23, 1997, p. 6, Commentary).
These comments alone could serve as a useful springboard for further research. The
assertion that MLK schools are low-performing schools—while yet another example of
the social boundaries being place around King’s commemoration—inspires us to exam-
ine levels of academic performance in schools before and after being named. What effect,
if any, do King schools (or any named school for that matter) have on the social, moral,
and intellectual development of their students? Contrary to concerns raised in Riverside,
it is unlikely that attending a Martin Luther King High School will hurt a student’s chance
to enter college. However, an important question remains unanswered. Do schools named
for King connect students with a more integrated and equitable vision of America or do
these named schools—because of the opposition, negative perceptions, and debate they
sometimes draw—simply reinforce traditional racial and economic boundaries?
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Over the past 2 decades, the critical toponymy literature reached a certain level, both qualitatively and quantitatively, that it is now both possible and necessary to subject the field itself to a critical evaluation. This study aims to make such a critical inquiry by arguing that although there has been important progress in critical toponymy studies, the field still has a tendency to approach place names on the basis of a hierarchy between ‘powerful hegemonic groups’ that control the official naming institutions and ‘weak masses’ who use place names in their everyday lives. This tendency, in turn, limits the critical toponymists by not allowing them to conceive what lies beyond the rejection and acceptance of hegemonic power. Although this article does not propose a clear-cut solution to this problem, it assumes that critical toponymists may learn from Roland Barthes who attempted to solve similar problems in literature by declaring the death of the author and the birth of the reader.
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This article explores the contest over the naming of urban landscapes in Zimbabwe. The analysis unfolds from the realization that urban landscapes are significant in naturalizing political systems and ideologies. Political actors strive to control and configure urban landscapes in a way that popularizes their political ideologies. This study advances the argument that urban local government actors may contest the hegemonic place-naming system that ruling elites prescribe. State actors also block any efforts by subordinate groups to disrupt the harmony between official toponymy and the political ideology that the ruling regimes popularize. However, subordinate groups can be heterogeneous leading to a multi-layered nature of resistance. There can be relations of dominance and subordination among the constituent elements of subordinate groups. Preliminary findings indicate that there is legislative ambivalence within and between the Urban Councils Act (Chapter 29:15) of 1996 and the Constitution of Zimbabwe, Amendment No. 20 of 2013, that allows for conflicting interpretations of arenas and boundaries of authority over urban toponymic inscription between urban local government actors and the central state. This causes perennial conflicts between central government and urban local government actors.
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Analysis of the Linguistic Landscape of schools has by and large concentrated on that in classrooms rather than that mounted on their boundaries, on their perimeter architecture. In the last decade, this architecture has become a rich site for semiotic expression, where schools project not just their own brand but also that of enterprises that sponsor and support them. Following an extensive analysis of the advertisements, signs, and banners around schools located in the inner-west of Sydney, Australia, this paper argues that their presence is emblematic of the neo-liberalist imperatives that now impel education and that is evident in the need for government schools to bolster their income streams and student enrolments. Hence comes the pressure for schools to advertise their qualities and attraction to their communities using a range of semiotic devices, including electronic message boards.
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Produced over the past decade, monuments and museums dedicated to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s have desegregated America's memorial landscape. Tracing a broad are across the US South, the material elements of this landscape-historic markers, monuments, parks, registered buildings, and museums-present a distinct challenge to representations of an elite, white American past. This challenge, however, is offered in a distinctly gendered manner, inasmuch as the role of women in organizing and lending the movement is obscured. Further, the historical narratives concretized at these sites are mediated by conventions associated with civil rights historiography and the tourism development industry The result is a complex, sometimes ironic landscape. Via the narratives they embed and the crowds they attract, these landscapes are co-constitutive with contemporary politics of representing the past in the United States. This paper offers an overview of current memorial practices and representations of the Civil Rights movement found at the country's major memorial landscapes.
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In this original and important new book, Professor Entrikin argues that there is no essence or universal structure of place waiting to be uncovered or discovered by the theorist. The significance of place is associated with our 'situatedness' as human agents and is always best understood from a point of view and best represented in terms of narrative which can appreciate its specificity without reducing its richness as context to its more limited sense as location.
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Objective. Recent controversies in numerous southern states over the meaning and value of Confederate symbols have reignited debates about race, heritage, and southern politics. Focusing on the case of the Georgia state flag, this study analyzes the relationship between racial attitudes, southern identity and positions on the flag controversy among white respondents. Methods. Survey questions written for this study were included in the Fall 1994 Georgia State Poll. These include multiple measures of southern identity and racial attitudes. Results. Our analyses show that racial attitudes and southern identity are strongly related and that the widespread defense of the Confederate-emblazoned flag among whites has much more to do with racial concerns than with other aspects of southern heritage. Evidence also suggests that identification with the "New South" is associated with relatively liberal views on racial issues and leads some white southerners to reject such state-sanctioned displays of Confederate symbols. Conclusions. Race and racial conflict remain a predominant theme of southern politics and society.
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America is embroiled in a culture war. National education standards have exacerbated the conflict. Supporters justify standards by adopting the rhetoric of globalization and national labor force preparedness. Opponents claim that standards threaten local control over value inculcation and social reproduction. This paper examines the "politics of scale" to hypothesize that conservatives have solicited Congressional support for local school choice and school prayer to subvert national education standards. Results from a multivariate analysis confirm that a significant link exists between Congressional opposition to education standards and support for school prayer and school choice.