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A Bumpy Road: The Challenges of Naming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr

Authors:
18 Planning January 2008
Road
*r first glance, commemorative street-
n.imingm.i) appear to bea minor concern given
I
IK
wideiaiige of
issues
that planners and public
lagcrsimist face every
day.
Yet it
is
a practice
reasing importance to racial and ethnic mi-
It sin the
U.S.
as
they seek
ways
to recognize
man
X
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|^
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establish.their current legitimacy.
The naming of streets for slain civil rights
leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is the most
widespread and controversial example of this
trend. By
2003,
at least 730 streets In 39 states
and the District of Columbia bad been named,
or renamed, tor King. Naming these streets has
often involved public debate and controversy,
and it
has
exposed local racial and political ten-
sions. Discussions have led to shouting matches
at government meetings, boycotts of businesses,
protest marches, petition drives, court appeals,
tlic vandalizing of roads, and activists chaining
themselves to street signs.
Much of the contentiousness arises when
African Americans propose to rename a thor-
oughfare that curs across business districts and
racial groups. Local governments are often
reluctant to approve the renaming, citing the
cost of an address change and opposition from
potentially affected businesses and residences.
Although Kings name can be found on some
The challenges
of
naming streets
for
IVIartin Luther
King,
J
thoroughfares, this public conflict
has
kept most
of the renamed streets confined to majority black
neighborhoods. For many African Americans,
honoring King along Americas roadways has
ironically become a reminder of continued
i
neqiiality rather than the dream of integration
and .social justice.
Point of intcrvcnfioii
In evaluatingstreet naming proposals, planners
areasked to consider government's responsibility
to private propert)' owners while also consider-
ing and protecting minority rights in a majority
rule system.
How a community handles the seemingly
unproblematic issue of naming a street after
an important civil rights figure may very well
indicate how that community treats its African
American residents in general and how race
relations will be perceived in the future.
In finding an appropriate way to honor
King on America's streets, communities have
pursued several strategies that we identify and
analyze here.
Kriiiime a section of (he strcrl
One of the most common strategies tised to
honor King has been to place his name on a
street or a segment of a street located primarily
within thcAfricanAmerican community. This
approach has the advantage of limiting opposi-
tion trom white citizens. Whites seldom resist
American Planning Associaiion
By Derek II. AUltMinaii. Sieve Spina. and Preshiii MiUlirll
street naming efforts as long as they do not
violate traditional racial boundaries in the city
(meaning they do not reach beyond the "black"
areas ot town),
Elected officials also find it relatively easy to
rename an African American street because sup-
port for such proposals is strongest in the black
community. Indeed, some African American
activists see street renaming
as a
way to educate
themselves and others about their own heritage
and to develop a sense of empowerment and
cultural worth.
When cmiipaigning to haveastreet renamed
in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the director
ofthe city's neighborhood community develop-
ment corporation connected King's legacy with
ongoingattempts to revitalize African American
business ;ind residential areas, ln her words,
"Beingsmail and having traffic lights and stop
signs doesn't make It less worthy to be named
Marrin Luther King Drive.... Martin Luther
King didn't work along the freeway. He worked
in communities."
Limiting the commemoration of Martin
Luther King to black neighborhoods may be
a comfortable proposition for whites and even
some African Americans. However, in our
opinion, the strategy runs the risk ot reinforc-
ing patterns of inequality and maintaining the
widespread public perception that King was a
blackleader whose teachings and achievements
are irrelevant to the wider
society.
The resulting
impression is that African Americans are racial
outsiders and that major portions ofthe larger
community are reserved for whites and white
historical figures.
In addition, this strategy often leads to the
renaming ofscgmentsofstrects rather than entire
roads,
which may contribute to confusion in
traffic navigation
as
well as political discontent
and debate.
Black leaders are increasingly demandi ng that
local governments revisit the street-renaming
issue and rb.it King's name be moved to more
prominent streets or extended for the entire
length of streets, often into wblce neighbor-
hoods.
CireenvUle, North Carolina, changed West
Fifth Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive
in 1998. Originally African American leaders
wanted all of Fifth Street renamcd^—not just
part of it—but residents and business owners on
the eastern end strongly opposed the proposal.
King Drive marks an iirea that
is
predominantly
black, whereas East Fiftli
is
mostly
white.
Afriain
American leaders have expressed deep frustra-
tion over the marginalization of the civil rights
leader but have been unsuccessful in renaming
the rest of Fifth Street. In the words of one
elected black official, "A whole man deserves
a whole street."
I he controversy reached such a pitch that
white municipal leaders voted last February to
rename the city's bypass for King and revert the
existing King Drive back co West Fifth Street,
a decision that prompted protests by African
American leaders and others.
lU'iiaiiit' II inajdr
African Americans often interpret the renam-
iiigofa major road as an indication ofthe city's
commitment to recognizing King's legacy. By
asking many residents and business owners to
change their mailing address, proponents seek
to make King'smemory visible and personal to
a larger cross section ofthe public.
Opponents often say an address change is
an insurmountable financial inconvenience,
but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In
2004,
one year after the Eugene, Oregon, city
council renamed Centennial Boulevard for King,
business representatives on the street reported
that theeconomic impact of the address change
was negligible. A similar situation occurred in
New Bern, North Carolina, where city officials
^ve business owners
a
year to malce adjustments
beforeofficially renaming Clarendon Boulevard.
21) Planning January 20()8
Kings namesake in New Bern is a numbered
U.S.
highway and the location of over 200 busi-
nesses, inchidinga shopping mall,
a
Wal-^Mart,
and car dealerships.
Further, renaming a racially diverse thor-
oughfare may have .social and political benefits
that can ourweigh financial considerations. In
connecting black and white communities, a
community shows it understands the integration
that King loughi ro achieve. Such a step may
send a powerfi.i! message about the sensitivity
oi city leaders to the needs oFblackcitizens, and
that in turn may lead to discussion ofseemingly
more important issues.
Still, it can be difficult and time consuming
[o build cross-racial support
For
such a proposal.
In many cases, city officials have taken months
or even years to phase in a new street name.
Bowing to businesses interests, city officials
in St. Petersburg, Florida, allowed a road to
carry two official names temporarily—Martin
Luther King, Jr. Street and Ninth Street. The
two names coexisted for
15
years until the local
chaptersoftheNAACP and Southern Christian
Leadership Conference forced the city to drop
Ninth Street signs in 2002.
Some cities are considering dual named streets
as a permanent solution. This past summer,
local officials in Coving;ton, Kentucky ended
an almost 20-year debate by honoring King
with ;i major road, but only after adding the
civil rights leader's name to 12th Street so that
property owners would not incur the cost of
losing their numerical address.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, dealt with a
different issue: the loss nf local tradition. In
2005,
a coalition of African American and
white leaders succeeded in having Airport Road,
a thoroughfare, renamed for Martin Luther
King, Jr. Intense public opposition came from
residential and commercial interests on thestreet,
who said that the road's long-standing name
was a key part of their heritage. The solution:
special slgnage that indicates King
Is
the official
street name while aiso designating the road as
"Historic Airport Road."
Finally, there
is
the lai^er agenda: white con-
cern about the perceived stigma of living and
working on King Street. There is a false notion
that all King streets arc blighted and depressed.
In fact, many have annual sales comparable to
the national average tor all LI.S. streets, and
several King streets are undergoing revitaliza-
tion, including those in Miami, Savannah,
Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland.
Overall, a primary issue for planners is de-
termining whether a given strategy should be
pursued because it iswhat the black community
wants or because it is simply a convenient way
to avoid negative feedback from the white
establishment.
lcft street
Some commtinities have dedicated or designated
a street for King, rather than renaming it.
In Crand Rapids, Michigan, a black radio
show host successfully pushed to have the
city accept his idea of
a
street dedication, His
proposal gained widespread support ajnong his
young, inner city black listeners, who thought
that poverty and violence were more important
issues within their community. The dedicated
street is a major north-south artery, ironically
named Division Avenue.
In contrast, members the Black Leadership
Roundtable in High Point, North Carolina, have
come back on a number of occasions over the
past decade to request that a street be renamed
instead of simply being dedicated. To
dace,
their
efforts have been unsuccessful.
It should be noted that when a street is
dedicated. King's name
is less
likely to appear in
city maps, business advertisements, and phone
books. 1 he power of commemorative street
naming
lies
in its ability to incorporate history
into the labricof everyday life. It is much easier
to avoid or ignore asign that honors an historic
figure than it is to ignore an address change,
particularly along
a
major thoroughfare.
Further, dedication may notcliminatecontro-
versy. In
2003,
the African Ameriain-led Quincy
(Illinois) Community Coalition agreed to have
Eighth Street designated in honor of King rather
than legallyrenamed. But when only
a
few signs
were installed along Eighth Street, black leaders
requested that the road be renamed. This step
led to intense public debate and the decision to
keep King's commemoration honorarj'-. Yet, even
with the cost of an address change not an issue,
some white citizens on South Eighth opposed
having honorary King signs placed in their
neighborhoods and argued for locating them
solely in the more African American, northern
portion of the street. A comprise was eventu-
ally struck and honorary signs were placed at
selected locations.
\nnu' a new
road
In some communities, citizens and local officials
In 2003. about 730
streets across
the U.S.
had
been
named for
Martin Luther
Kitjg.
Jr.
have su^ested that naming a newly built or
otherwise unnamed road
is
better than changi ng
the name of an existing street. Honoring King
on a new road has the advantage of ensuring
that few, if any, residents or businesses would
be impacted by an address change. Because
.some new roads are built in areas ofplanned or
expected growth, the civil rights leader's name
may very well have a prominent and positive
place in the community's future.
This approach
was
successful in Wilmington,
North Carolina, where cit)' leaders attached
King's name to a newly built parkway. Ciom-
pleted in 2005, the parkway
is
expected to spark
new business and widespread revitalizatJon.
Naming new roads has its disadvantages,
though. New road construction is quite costly,
and even after a new road is approved, several
years may elapse before it is completed. Such a
In print. Derek H. Alderman, "Naming Streets after Martin Luther King, |r.: No Easy Road,"
in landscape ami Race in the United
States.
2006. "Branded; The Economic Geographies of
MLK Streets," by Matthew Mitchelson, Derek H. Alderman, and Jeff Popke in Social
Science
Quarterly, 2007. Jonathan Tilove, Along Martin Luther
King:
Travels
Along Black
America's
Main
Street,
2003.
Amcriian
I'biining
Aswiciaiion
21
schedule could be interpreted as a purposeful
delay.
As King himself noted in his Letter from
Birmingham Jail, "wait" usually means "never"
in the African American community.
Further, the street in question may be so
removed from the city—as with
a
bypass—that
it has
a
greater impact on those traveling in and
out of the city than those who live and work in
local neighborhoods.
Knact u reiiamini^ ordinance
Many local govertiments are dealing with re-
quests to rename streets by enacting ordinances
that specify rules or requirements. Some ordi-
nances require a large percentage of property
owners abutting a street to approve a name
change before it will be considered.
Covernment officials typically favor an or-
dinance approach because it shows sensitivity
to those who would have to change their ad-
dresses and hence shoulder much (but not all)
the cost of street renaming. Also, because many
of these ordinances require a majority or even
a supermajority (60 to 7^ percent) of property-
owners to
agree,
there
is a
built-in guarantee that
an address change will have public support, at
least of those most closely involved.
Some African Americans leaders
have
voiced
support for this strategy, believing that it is a
way to mobilize support for a King street and
that it reduces the chances of reinstating the
old street name. There are exceptions, though.
After a controversial renaming in one Elorida
community, a candidate for city council who
opposed the name change won aseat and even-
tually succeeded in getting the road's original
name restored.
Other black activists claim, perhaps le-
gitimately, that some municipal officials have
developed and enforced these ordinances
strategically to thwart requests to honor King
outside the confines of the black community.
It should be noted that because of the intense
racial poiitics that often drive Martin Luther
King street renamings, the chance of African
Americansgettingapproval from
a
supermajority
or even a majority of white property owners is
slim. It is much more likely that black leaders
could get support from propert)'owners in their
own neighborhoods.
However, the upshot would be that the
renamed roads would be limited to African
American rieighborhoods—undercutting King's
notion of integration and equality.
For planners and public managers, another
option would be an ordinance that gives Africa ti
Americans a say in whether thotoughfares ate
identified with King even if they do not own
property or
live
on the
street.
Stich
a
perspective
recognizes that a wide range of people use and
identify with roads as public spaces, many of
whom are ignored or disenfranchised within
existing street renaming ordinances. At the
heart of the ordinance issue is the question of
boundaries and who has
a
stake In the decision-
tiiaking politics of street renaming.
The point became clear in Zephyrhills,
Florida, the community that reversed course on
street naming, in
2003,
an African American
community leader suggested changing Sixth
Avenue to Martin Luther
King.
jr. Drive. That
individual lived just outside the city limits, in
a predominately black neighbothood estab-
lished during the days of segregation in the
early l%Os.
Some white residents poitited out that the
person in question had no standing with the
city. Their position was bolstered by a 1987
ordinance that required a petition from resi-
dents living on a street to recommend a name
change or authorize the city council to make the
change. On the other hand, proponents of the
street renaming maintained that they, too, had
a say in the debate over a public thoroughfare,
panicularly one that members of the black com-
munity had tised for more than 40 years.
After renaming Sixth Avenue for King in
October
200.3,
Zephyrhills decided to stick by
the 1987 law. Under intense public pressure, it
rescinded the renaming in 2004.
East forward two years. In 2006, the city
adopted a comprehensive ordinance on street
name changes. The ordinance severely limits
the potential of changing street names and
spells out who has standing: property owners
on the street, 75 percent of whom must approve
of a name change before it is presented to the
city council.
In our opinion, the street naming process
is particularly contentious when it challenges
long-established
racial
and econom
ic
boundaries
within citie.s—the very same boundaries that
King had hoped to
destroy.
While these named
streets speak about the past, they perhaps say
just as much about America in tbe present and
the still unfinished nature of the civil rights
movement.
Derek Alderman Is
an
associate proffrssor
in
ilit'
LXpart-
ment of Geography
at
East Carolina
University.
He
has
researched Martin LutlierKingstreets for over a
decade.
Sieve Spina
is
the
c\vy
manager of
Zephyrhills.
Florida.
Prcsion Mitchell
is
tfie town manager
of
Nashville,
Nortfi
Carolina.
Article
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