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Creating a New Geography of Memory in the South: (Re)naming of Streets in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The (re)naming of streets in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is quickly becoming a common yet controversial feature on the southern urban landscape. This new trend in place-naming reflects efforts by African Americans to create a new geography of memory in a region where much of its landscape has long been used and reserved for remembering (and memorializing) primarily white-controlled and dominated conceptions of the past. This paper articulates a theoretical framework for understanding the struggles that local African-American communities face in the street-(re)naming process. The controversy surrounding MLK street (re)naming can be analyzed in relation to three interrelated struggles: (1) the politics of place-naming, the struggle of African Americans to inscribe their ideological values and aspirations about race relations into the symbolism of place-names; (2) the politics of memory, the struggle of African Americans to reconstruct the region's collective memory of the past through commemoration; and (3) the politics of space and scale, the struggle of African Americans to engage in commemoration of King as it is affected by the long-standing authority of whites to control the scale of black expression and mobilization, black attitudes toward space, and the politics of designing the city. This paper attempts to build a greater understanding of how geography constitutes and structures the production of memory within society.
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... For example, the viewpoint outlined here can contribute to the understanding of how unofficial toponyms associate with place-and group-based identities (Vuolteenaho et al. 2019). Likewise, renaming a place due to political changes (Fabiszak et al. 2021), to commemorate a person or event (Alderman 1996), or as part of a postcolonial project (Stolz & Warnke 2016) could jumpstart the development of moral toponyms, as a new name would be intentionally linked to a set of values or ideologies. In this sense, the new toponym would double as a traditional toponym labeling the space and a moral toponym situating the space as advocating the values of the namer. ...
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Language users can create moral geographies, in which values are mapped in space, by indexically linking values and spatial referents. One understudied aspect of linguistic practice in this domain is the role of toponyms in constructing a moral geography. This investigation illustrates how sociolinguistic variants of a toponym can be used to construct a moral geography. I take as a case study sociolinguistic variation in the US state name Missouri, which can be produced as Missouree or Missourah. Qualitative analysis of a set of local newspaper columns shows these variants can be used as place names. However, they do not distinguish regions of physical space. Rather, the variants label moral spaces by setting each variant on opposing ends of cultural, geographic, and political axes of contrast. Because their primary role is to label moral space, I suggest that toponymic studies should consider the kind of geography that a toponym labels space within. I consider the usage here to be examples of “moral toponyms”, in contrast to traditional toponyms which label physical space.
... Critical place name studies have focussed mainly on North America and Europe, but there are few studies that have explored the politics of place naming in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Azaryahu 2011a;Foote and Azaryahu 2007;Rose-Redwood and Alderman 2011). There is a sizeable number of critical toponymic studies in North America (Alderman 1996(Alderman , 2000(Alderman , 2002a(Alderman , 2002b(Alderman , 2003Alderman and Inwood 2013;Dwyer 2002Dwyer , 2004Dwyer and Alderman 2008a;Hoelscher 2003). Europe also has a considerable number of critical toponymic studies. ...
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Regime changes and power transfers usually engender an extensive reordering of the cultural geography. Incoming political regimes usually reconfigure commemorative landscapes to symbolically dismantle icons and landmarks of the previous political regimes and herald their arrival on the political scene. The new regime in Zimbabwe that assumes power in November 2017 reconstituted the commemorative space according to its sociopolitical logics, commemorative priorities, and assumptions of power. This article uses the textual approach to the politics of place naming to interrogate the varied ways the Mnangagwa regime used to reinscribe the cultural landscape producing a new memorial landscape in the aftermath of the upstaging of Robert Mugabe in November 2017. The new regime symbolically constructed the imaginative national geography in a relational manner that differed from the one instituted by the Mugabe regime. The main observation in this article is that place renaming is not merely as a reflection of, but also integral to, the politics of ‘transformation’ in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The new place names are saturated with messages that indicate official versions that prescribe new rules on the reading of the past. The new toponymic order symbolically replaced the Mugabe political hegemony with the Mnangagwa one, increased the visibility of women, commemorated a new set of heroes, including those that had suffered systematic exclusion in nationalist discourses, and renamed ‘unusual’ places that the previous regime never considered in the process of recasting the cultural geography. The memorial project involved a highly politicised nomination process that served the interests of the ruling political elites. It is, therefore, problematic that most critical enquiries into this phase in the Zimbabwean political landscape have not focussed on these cultural transformations.
... According to a recent national analysis, residents in neighborhoods with a street named for King tend to be significantly poorer than residents in neighborhoods without a named street, even when those neighborhoods have a similar racial and economic makeup (University of North Texas 2011). As some activists argue, to marginalize the commemoration of King on blighted 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 against (Alderman 1996). Tilove (2003: 122) perhaps put it best when he wrote: 'To name any street for King is to invite an accounting of how the street makes good on King's promise or mocks it.' ...
... From the mid-1990s onward, there has also been a growing interest in examining how street naming and related toponymic practices are implicated in the racialization and gendering of urban space, where the latter is viewed as a cultural arena in which the politics of recognition are played out across the fault lines of race, gender, and class (Alderman 1996(Alderman , 2000(Alderman , 2002a(Alderman , 2002b(Alderman , 2003Berg and Kearns 1996;Dwyer and Alderman 2008;Rose-Redwood 2008c;Alderman and Inwood 2013). Such works have sought to cast the study of street naming as part of the geographies of social justice, focusing particular attention on the struggles of socially marginalized groups to claim their rightful "place" in the public sphere of the urban streetscape. ...
... Its nationalist voice 'drowns in a sea' of colonial names in its immediate surroundings. Alderman (1996) underscores the importance of space to memory, particularly the significance of physical surroundings as reinforcers of memory. Thus, related place names close to a commemorative place name contribute to the significance of the memorial space, and the reverse is also true. ...
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Chapter
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