May/June 20 14
Social Education 78(3), pp 123–128
©2014 National Council for the Social Studies
A Street Named for a King:
The Politics of Place-Naming
Jerry T. Mitchell and Derek H. Alderman
Streets are so common in everyday use that they often escape notice. Their names
are more common still—with Second, Third, First, Fourth, and Park as the top five
names in the United States.1 Yet some names evoke far more than a simple moniker
atop a signpost. Consider Pennsylvania Avenue, Beale Street, or Sunset Boulevard and
images of specific buildings, activities, people, or landscapes come to mind. For our
classrooms, streets and their names can serve as an important component in teaching
one of the main themes of geography—an appreciation of place.
An appreciation of place goes beyond
a simple understanding of the human
and physical characteristics of a location.
Rather, this appreciation also involves
recognizing how places are actively
created or constructed by social actors
and groups, who view and experience
the wider world in different and some-
times competing ways. Consequently,
the creation of place—how it appears
and functions, and what it means to
people—can become points of contest.
The “politics of place” has emerged
as a major approach within geography,
one that suggests that our most taken-
for-granted places are formed through
negotiation and even struggle as people
engage in broader debates over culture,
identity, and symbols.2
Street-naming may at first glance
appear to be a fairly innocuous exer-
cise, a way of simply creating a system
of spatial reference and orientation. Yet,
street names are also symbols to which
people attach meaning and from which
they draw identity, and the naming pro-
cess can give us insight into the history
and social power relations in a particu-
lar place. When communities seek to
commemorate their past through street
signs, disagreement may arise over what
or who is honored. In these instances,
street names—as socially constructed
and contested places—become important
public arenas for debating whether cer-
tain h istorical figures are worthy of being
remembered publicly. The remembra nce
of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968)
along America’s roadways is a noteworthy
example of this dynamic.
The United States now contains no
fewer than 890 streets, boulevards, ave-
nues, and courts named for the slain civil
rights icon, according to our research.
They number as high as 128 in Georgia
to 1 in Wyoming and Alaska, and 10
states (mainly Mountain/Great Plains
and New England) have none. The
naming of streets for Dr. King is cer-
tainly about honoring his individual
contributions, but it is also about creat-
ing places that retell the history of the
United States to include a wider, more
racially and ethnically diverse society.
Even as streets named after King reflect
the increased c ultural and political power
of blacks and the liberalization of white
attitudes, they also are sites of struggle
for African Americans. In particular, to
name a street after King often involves
determining where best to emplace his
name within the community, deciding
which street to name or re-name, and
debating whether that location does jus-
tice to King’s memory. African American
Dr. M L King Jr. Blvd., New Bern, North Carolina. (Photograph by Derek Alderman)
activists who seek to rename major thor-
oughfares have confronted significa nt public
opposition, frequently leading to the place-
ment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s name on
minor streets or portions of roads located
entirely within African American neighbor-
hoods. The process of naming a street after
King, then, can be more than a celebration
of the man and his work, but also a test of
social equality within communities. As
Alderman previously observed, “Streets
named after [Martin Luther] King illustrate
the important yet contentious ways in which
race, place, and memory intersect through
the American landscape.”3
The lesson described on pages 125–126,
which we have carried out with high school
students as well as pre-service and in-ser vice
teachers, uses an online geographic informa-
tion system (GIS) to uncover the geographic
and social context of streets named after
King, prompting students to consider why
these named streets are found in certain
places and not in others and what forces
and decisions likely drive these patterns.
Students map the street locations to uncover
regional patterns in honoring K ing, wrestle
with issues related to data accuracy, explore
the demographic character of the street’s
host community, and gain proficiency using
a geospatial tool. In doing so, students
gain a firmer appreciation and analytical
understanding of streets and their names
in terms of the cultural politics of naming
and making places. The lesson also allows
students to explore the specific dimensions
of an increasingly popular but contentious
addition to the United States landscape—a
landscape movement that is ongoing as com-
munities continue to propose and debate
ways to commemorate the civil rights move-
The Politics of Martin Luther King Jr.
The commemoration of Martin Luther
King Jr. through street (re)naming is part of a
larger movement to redress the exclusion of
African American experiences and achieve-
ments from the national historical conscious-
ness. The naming of streets for King began
soon after his assassination, with Chicago
Figure . Adding MLK street data. The CSV ﬁle containing Georgia, Louisiana, and Midwestern
points is shown. Each point displays attribute data (city, state, zip code) when clicked. (Image
sourced from ArcGIS.com)
Figure . Census data added to the map showing Percent Black Population. Counties can be
selected to display speciﬁc demographic data, for example St. Clair County, Illinois. (Image sourced
continued on page 127
May/June 20 14
Grade level: 9–12, secondary
• Identify factors that may make street-naming, or place-
• Import spatial data into an online geographic information
system and construct a map.
• Compare the location of MLK-named streets with demo-
graphic data for the same area and offer explanations for
any resulting patterns.
• Gain pro cedural knowledge of geospatial technology using
an online geographic information system.
Time needed: 2 days
Materials: Computer lab, classroom computer with digital projec-
tion, or overhead projector (see display comments at beginning
of Procedures below): the background reading (Derek Alderman,
“Naming Streets after Martin Luther King, Jr.: No Easy Road,” in
Landscape and Race in the United States, ed. Rich Schein. London:
Routledge, 2006) and the Martin Luther King Jr. street data files
can be freely downloaded at http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/cege/
mlk.html; handout with discussion questions.
GIS (geographic information system) mapping software is avail-
able from ESRI. This software can be used freely by establishing
a user account at www.arcgis.com. Once logged in, users can
change the base map and begin adding data.
Different options exist here: (1) the instructor may construct the
maps ahead of the lesson and present it via overhead or digital
projection; (2) the instructor may complete the investigation
step-by-step during class from the classroom computer; or (3) the
students complete the investigation themselves in a computer
lab. These procedures are written for the third option.
1. Highlight the life and activities of Martin Luther King, Jr. This
may have been done previously as part of a larger unit on civil
rights (e.g., Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board of Education, etc.), so a
simple review may be appropriate here.
2. Have the students read “Namin g Streets after Martin Luther King,
Jr.: No Easy Road” (Alderman, 2006) at http://artsandsciences.
sc.edu/cege/mlk.html and answer the three discussion ques-
tions provided here. This is a lengthy read, so the teacher may
elect to assign only certain portions. A short discussion of the
reading and discussion questions may close Day One. If extra
time was spent on Step 1, the reading and discussion questions
may be assigned for homework. The questions and suggested
answers are below:
Question 1: Investigate Figure 11.2 (p. 218 of the Alderman Chapter).
What size community hosts the majority of streets named
for King? Why? [Answer: The majority of U.S. streets named
for King are in places with a population of fewer than 10,000
people. Small places far outnumber large places.]
Question 2: What type of groups typically initiate campaigns to
name streets for K ing? Why? [Answer: Campaigns are of ten con-
ducted by the NAACP, churches, and various African American-
led community improvement associations.]
Question 3: Consider the Brent, Alabama, example (p. 225). Should
it matter where the named street is located so long as Martin
Luther King Jr. is commemorated? [Answer: In the Brent case,
location mattered considerably. As to whether it should matter,
student responses will vary.]
1. Download the street files to your computer. Visit http://www.
artsandsciences.sc.edu/cege/mlk.html and save four CSV
files to your computer: MLK1_250, MLK251_500, MLK501_750,
2. Via the Internet, pull up the ArcGIS.com website and login
using your personal account.
3. Click on the tab labeled “Map” on the top bar. A map of the
world will appear and you will be able to add data.
4. Using the “Basemap” tab, select either “Streets” or
5. Click on the “Add” tab. This button has a small “plus” sign on
it. Select “Add Layer from File” from the drop-down menu. An
“Add Layer from File” window will appear.
6. Click on “Browse.” A new window will appear for you to select
the first of the files of streets named after King. Select that
file and click “Import Layer.” A new window will appear titled
“Add CSV Layer.” Make sure that the Location Fields are marked
“City,” “State,” and “Zipcode.” Click “Add Layer.”
7. Martin Luther King Jr. street features will appear on the map
(Figure 1). This is a subset of the total dataset as ArcGIS.com
will only allow you to import 250 features at a time. Repeat
steps 5-6 to add the full dataset to your map. Add MLK251_500,
8. With the first map complete, have the students answer the
first two map discussion questions. Suggested answers follow.
continued on page 126
Question 1: Is there a pattern for MLK-named streets? If so, what
reason(s) account for that pattern? [Answer: Most features are in
the Southeast; other features are in Northern cities with sizable
African American populations; another interesting pattern is
the central California valley (farm workers, progressive politics)].
Question 2: Choose a Mar tin Luther King Jr. point feature and zoom
in to it. Can you find the King-named street? If not, why not?
[Answer: Many point features do not line up with a stre et named
for King. This is an important point regarding the King dataset.
The Martin Luther King Jr. street features are represented by
a point inside a zip code area that contains the street. If a
student zooms in to a specific point, they may not readily see
a street named for King nearby. The street data was collected
at the zip code scale, not street level, and the point feature is
simply at the center of the zip code area. A good example to
illustrate this issue is Columbia, South Carolina. If one zooms in
to that feature, it appears to be on “Lower Richland Boulevard.”
A quick glance to the east shows where “Martin Luther King
Boulevard” is located. Another example is Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Just to the southwest of the point is the Martin Luther King Jr.
Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. Court].
9. Add demographic data. Click on the “Add” tab. Choose “ Search
for Layers” from the drop-down menu.
10. In the side bar window, type “Census 2010 Black” into the
“Find” spaces and click “Go.” A series of datasets will appear.
Select “USA Census Black Population” by clicking “add.”
11. The new data has been added to your existing map (Figure 2).
Zoom in to any location. As the scale becomes larger, county
lines will appear, and then Census tracts, then Census block
groups. If you zoom in too far, the Census data will disappear
and only the streets layer will be visible.
12. Click on any feature—county, tract, block group—and a pie
chart will appear that shows the racial/ethnic make-up of
that spatial unit (Figure 2).
13. Have students investigate the racial/ethnic make-up for several
places. Suggested places outside of the Southeast include
Buffalo, New York, and Bakersfield, California. Buf falo shows a
high African American concentration near the streets named
after King; for Bakersfield, it is Hispanic near the street point.
Remember that the point is not necessarily lined up with
the street. In this case (Bakersfield), there is a sizable African
American population near the actual road location and a park
named for King, too.
14. Have students answer Question 3 after viewing the new map:
Question 3: Do you think that MLK-named streets are randomly
located or are they purposefully located in specific neighbor-
hoods? What data would you need to investigate this ques tion?
[Answer: Streets named after King are frequently located in
sections of cities that have higher numbers of African American
residents. This naming, often a street re-naming, process can
be politically contentious. The second part of this question
was answered by adding a new dataset, 2010 Census race
data (see step 10).]
15. After investigating various places and their relationships
to streets named for King, close the lesson by discussing
Question 4: Why do you think re-naming a street after King is
sometimes difficult? Can you think of any other historic or
contemporary person that should be honored with a street
name? Would other people agree with your choice? [Answer:
This question is used to close the lesson. Answers may vary.
Obviously most Americans would be repulsed by a “Bin Laden
Boulevard,” but others would e xpress distaste for a street named
for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Harvey Milk depending on
their political or social leanings. Street-naming is a political
act that defines who controls a particular space. Many people
believe that how their place is represented also has an impact
on things such as property values].
A C T I V I T Y
Additional demographic and other data is available for use in
online ArcGIS. For example, students may include “USA Median
Household Income” and investigate the relationship between
that variable and an MLK-named street.
Note about the Martin Luther King Jr. street dataset
The dataset of streets named after King has been compiled over the
past decade. It is a conservative, yet confirmed, listing of streets named
after King. New streets are named/re-named, and not all instances
may have been uncovered. The varied naming also complicates
identification (street, blvd., MLK, MLK, Jr., Martin Luther King, etc.).
The dataset is made available in four separate files since the free
online GIS—ArcGIS.com— only allows data uploads of 250 features
or less. CSV files are comma-separated values where tabular data is
in plain-text form. These files are readable and can be modified in
Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software. The data points are not line
features. The MLK street features are represented by a point at the
center of the zip code area that contains the street.
This article continues after the center pullout
May/June 20 14
perhaps being the first city to honor him
in this way.
King’s status and the legiti-
macy of street-naming ceremonies rose
after the federal government established
a federal holiday in his honor in the early
1980s. At the same time, street-naming
offers a geographic permanence and year-
round visibilit y to the civil rights leader’s
memory that the birthday celebration in
January cannot provide. Martin Luther
King drives, boulevards, and avenues
are often important centers of African
American identity, activity, and com-
munity, demonstrati ng the importance of
streets and street names as components
of place and place identity.
Overall, King streets are found most
often in places where African Americans
represent at least a third of a city’s pop-
ulation, which reflects the strong role
that activism plays in the street-naming
process. Local chapters of the National
Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC), and other African American-
led community improvement associa-
tions and coalitions are often respon-
sible for street-naming proposals. There
are noteworthy instances of whites not
only supporting the cause but leading it.
Most often, however, the naming pro-
cess becomes a contested cultural arena
that exposes continued racial divisions
within communities and opens up politi-
cal debates about King and his legacies as
well as larger issues of racism and power
in America. These debates have led to
shouting matches at government meetings,
boycotts of businesses, protest marches,
petition drives, court appeals a nd injunc-
tions, vandalizing of roads, and activists
chaining themselves to street sign poles.
Although seemingly ordinary and
unimportant in nature, street names
offer a means of mak ing the past a visible
and intimate part of the everyday realm.
Street names have a geographic connec-
tivity that contributes to their symbol-
ism—providing a unique way of linking
people and places that would otherwise
be insular and of educating the larger
white public about King’s importance.
Some proponents believe that naming a
smaller, less prominent street for King
degrades the civil rights leader’s histori-
cal import ance and perpetuates t he same
aspects of segregation that he battled. In
the words of journalist Jonathan Tilove,
“To name any street for King is to invite
an accounting of how the street makes
good on King’s promise or mocks it.”6
Yet, 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 con-
troversial. Commercial interests are
consistently the most vocal opponents
to having their street addresses changed,
citing not only cost and inconvenience
but also a potential stigma, as they see
it, of having their street identiﬁed with
King. As author Guillermo Caliendo
notes, for many in America, “King
streets … signify Blackness, poor Black
people, and even a dangerous neighbor-
hood whereby commemoration recalls
not social achievements by African
Americans but a socioeconomic decay
of Black neighborhoods”
can be self-fulfilling, though there are
streets named after King that defy this
stereotype. Nevertheless, many city offi-
cials “respond to the potentially racial
and negative overtones of naming a street
for King by segregating his name within
the African American community, thus
further reinforcing the material basis or
reality of the stigmatization.” 8
Given the central and controversial
role that location plays within the politics
of memorializing Martin Luther King
through street-naming, it is imperative
that students develop the critical per-
spectives required to understand how,
why, and where these named streets have
emerged in the United States.
Planning a Lesson around Martin
Luther King Street-Naming
The lesson on pages 125–126 engages
students directly with themes
TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE and PEOPLE,
PLACES, AND ENVIRONMENTS
in the National
Curriculum Standards for Socia l Studies.
Here geography is coupled with an analy-
Figure . The same Martin Luther King Jr. street location in Fig. (East St. Louis, Illinois) is shown at a
larger scale. Map readers can now see that the census block containing the street is percent Black.
Fig. showed the same county to be approximately White, illustrating the importance of scale to
answering geographic questions (Image sourced from ArcGIS.com)
THE POLITICS OF PLACE
NAMING from page 124
sis of history and the leg acy of the past to
first identify patterns of naming streets
for King and then to offer explanation
for those patterns as they appeared over
time.9 The dual emphasis on continuity
and change in the social studies stan-
dards is e specially relevant. The United
States ha s a long history of naming place s,
especially streets, after patriot heroes
and other notables, but the presence of
roads named for King signal an impor-
tant reversal or change in the traditional
omission of African Americans within
places of public commemoration. At the
same time, the location-based struggles
that surround the naming of stree ts after
King highlight the continuing difficul-
ties in challenging the social and spatial
control historically exerted by a white
political establishment over minorities,
suggesting that naming streets “Martin
Luther King Jr.” represents an extension
rather than a culmination of the civil
A second goal of the lesson is student
use of geospatial technology. Geographic
information systems, specifically, offer
problem-solving applications appropri-
ate across many disciplines, including
the social studies, and a number of edu-
cators have successfu lly demonstrated its
utility in the K-12 classroom.
geographic in formation systems, like the
type uti lized here, eliminate many of the
traditional barriers to GIS classroom
use (e.g., cost, software maintenance,
learning curve). Not only can GIS be
an important teaching and learning
tool; evidence is mounting that its use
can result in improved student achieve-
Social studies educators are tasked
with bringing past people, places, and
events into the present, h ighlighting the
often complex interplay between them.
The Martin Luther King street lesson
outlined here allows students to inves-
tigate contemporary landscape features
born out of a struggle for equality that
still plays out in America today. Civic
engagement, histor y, and geography are
brought together through GIS by uncov-
ering reg ional pattern s and demographic
correlations not easily explored other-
wise. Students use geospatial technology,
question their past, and learn that they
do more than “l ive” in places; they lear n
that they are c apable of (re)making them,
1. National League of Cities, “Most Common U.S.
Street Names” (Washington, D.C.: 2013),
2. Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction
(Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
3. Derek Alderman, “Naming Streets after Martin
Luther King, Jr.: No Easy Road,” in Landscape
and Race in the United States, ed. Rich Schein
(London: Routledge, 2006), 213-236.
4. Jonathan Tilove, Along Martin Luther King:
Travels on Black America’s Main Street (New
York: Random House, 2003).
5. Owen Dwyer and Derek Alderman, Civil Rights
Memorials and the Geography of Memory
(Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2008)
7. Guillermo Caliendo, “MLK Boulevard: Material
Forms of Memory and the Social Contestation
of Racial Signiﬁcation,” Journal of Black Studies
42, no. 7 (2011): 1148–1170.
8. Matthew Mitchelson, Derek Alderman, and Jeff
Popke, “Branded: the Economic Geographies of
MLK Streets,” Social Science Quarterly 88, no.
1 (2007): 120-145.
9. National Council for the Social Studies, National
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A
Framework for Teaching, Learning, and
Assessment (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 2010),
10. Jerry T. Mitchell, Jeremy Cantrill, and Justin
Kearse, “The “Why” and “Where” of the Tappan
Zee Bridge: A Lesson in Site Location, Physical
Geography, and Politics,” Social Education 76,
no. 4 (2012): 205–209; Marsha Alibrandi and
Herschel Sarnoff, “Using GIS to Answer the
“Whys” of “Where” in Social Studies,” Social
Education 70, no. 3 (2006): 138-143; Anne Kelly
Knowles, ed., Past Time, Past Place: GIS for
History (Redlands, Calif.: ESRI Press, 2002).
11. Ali Demirci, Ahmet Karaburun, and Mehmet
Unlu, “Implementation and Effectiveness of GIS-
Based Projects in Secondary Schools,” Journal
of Geography 112, no. 5 (2013): 214–228; Donna
Goldstein and Marsha Alibrandi, “Integrating
GIS in the Middle School Curriculum: Impacts
on Diverse Students’ Standardized Test Scores,”
Journal of Geography 112, no. 2 (2013): 68–74.
Jerry T. Mitchell
is director of the Center of
Excellence for Geographic Education at the Univer-
sity of South Carolina in Columbia, S outh Carolina.
He can be reached at
. Derek H.
Alderman is professor and head of the Depart-
ment of Geography at the University of Tennessee
in Knoxville, Tennessee. He can be reached at
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