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Street naming and the politics of belonging: spatial
injustices in the toponymic commemoration of
Martin Luther King Jr
Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
To cite this article: Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood (2013) Street naming and the politics
of belonging: spatial injustices in the toponymic commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr, Social &
Cultural Geography, 14:2, 211-233, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2012.754488
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Published online: 03 Jan 2013.
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Street naming and the politics of belonging: spatial
injustices in the toponymic commemoration of Martin
Luther King Jr
Derek H. Alderman
& Joshua Inwood
Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA, and
Department of Geography and Africana Studies, University of
Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA,
Although the critical turn in place name study recognizes the central and contested place
that toponyms hold in people’s lives and identity struggles, little work has explicitly
analyzed place naming rights in terms of social justice, citizenship, and belonging. We
introduce readers to the naming of streets for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Jr and use two brief case studies from the southeastern USA (Statesboro, Georgia and
Greenville, North Carolina) to discuss the barriers that hinder the creation of a landscape
that truly reflects the teachings of King. Naming opponents, sometimes with the
(un)witting cooperation of black activists, impose spatial, scalar limits on the rights of
African Americans to participate in the street naming process and to appropriate the
identity of streets outside of their neighborhoods, even though challenging historically
entrenched patterns of racial segregation and marginalization is exactly the purpose of
many street naming campaigns. The case of King streets prompts us to think about place
naming as a mechanism of spatial (in)justice, demonstrating the fundamental role that
geography plays in constituting and structuring the processes of discrimination or
Key words: spatial justice, place name, toponymy, Martin Luther King, African
American, belonging.
Place names or toponyms play an important
but uneasy role in the study of geography.
After all, who among us has not expressed
anger over the persistent stereotypical image
that geography is a simplistic field concerned
largely with physiographic description and the
rote memorization of capitals and other place
names (Floyd 1971; Murphy 2007)? However,
scholars long ago established the broader
analytical value of place names and their
capacity ‘to provide clues as to the historical
and cultural heritage of places and regions’
(Kearns and Berg 2002: 284). With an
emphasis on classifying and mapping the
Social & Cultural Geography, 2013
Vol. 14, No. 2, 211–233,
q2013 Taylor & Francis
spatial distribution of landscape artifacts,
traditional cultural geography used place
name patterns to reconstruct the direction
and timing of human migrations, the location
of past settlements, the original vegetation of
areas, the boundaries of vernacular or percep-
tual regions, and the contours of national and
regional identity and commemoration (e.g.
Leighly 1978; Raitz 1973; Waibel 1943;
Zelinsky 1980, 1988). Yet, a focus simply on
naming patterns does not fully capture the
naming process and the people behind these
patterns. As Withers (2000: 533) astutely
Attention to the name alone, either on the ground or
on an historical map, runs the risk of concerning
itself with ends and not with means; of ignoring, or,
at best, underplaying the social processes intrinsic
to the authoritative act of naming.
Over the past several years, geographers
have examined the social processes to which
Withers refers and situated ‘the study of
toponymy within the context of broader
debates in critical human geography’ (Rose-
Redwood et al. 2010: 455). Newer toponymic
approaches stress the cultural politics of
naming, paying close attention to who con-
trols the naming process (and conversely who
does not) as well as the cultural and political
world views that are given voice (and made
silent) through the place name landscape.
Place names are more than innocent spatial
references or passive artifacts; they are
embedded in social power relations and
struggles over the identities of places and
people (Berg and Vuolteenaho 2009; Kearns
and Berg 2002). Much of the scholarship has
focused on place names in the context of
nationalism and (post)colonialism and how
political elites and public authorities within
countries use the toponymic process—particu-
larly commemorative street naming—to erase
signs of earlier political and ideological
regimes and to advance new notions of
national identity and memory (Azaryahu
1997; Azaryahu and Kook 2002; Guyot and
Seethal 2007; Light 2004; Nash 1999).
However, as geographers have also noted,
the rewriting of the name landscape is an
‘uneven, negotiated process of constant
mediations’ as social actors and groups of
varying power question, reinterpret, and even
challenge the form and meaning of place
names (Yeoh 1996: 304). In outlining a new
agenda for place name research, Rose-Red-
wood (2011) stressed the importance of
analyzing place naming rights and the ongoing
privatization of these rights as part of the
neoliberalization and commercialization of
the landscape. He noted how the right to name
a place—including parks, schools, and
streets—is increasingly controlled and exclu-
sionary in today’s society, thus limiting the
ability of the broader community to claim and
use those public spaces and their names as sites
of social life and expression (Rose-Redwood
et al. 2010).
In summary, critical place name scholars
recognize the central and contested place that
toponyms hold in people’s lives and their
struggles over identity and rights, understood
here as not only the legal authority to name a
place but also the broader rights of people to
participate in the production of place and to
have their cultural identities and histories
recognized publicly. Toponyms, like all place
representations, are expressive and constitu-
tive of the politics of citizenship, conferring a
greater degree of belonging to certain groups
over others, while also serving as sites for
battles to widen the ‘distribution of citizen-
ship’ and the use of space (Dunn 2003).
Although it is true that ‘critical place-name
scholars have typically focused on the most
212 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
dramatic political conflicts over place naming’
(Rose-Redwood and Alderman 2011: 3), few
have analyzed toponyms and place naming
rights explicitly in terms of the struggle for
citizenship and social justice. This is surprising
given the important role that words and names
play in the circulation of moral attributes and
the ‘distribution of rights’ (Peteet 2005: 154).
With calls to place social justice at the center
of landscape analysis (e.g. Mitchell 2003), it is
especially important to understand how place
naming rights and toponymic practices work
ideologically to disenfranchise or empower
historically marginalized groups as they make
claims for public space, political legitimacy
and what landscape scholars refer to as the
‘politics of belonging’ (e.g. Alderman and
Modlin forthcoming; Schein 2009). Our
objective in this study is to identify a kind of
oppositional politics that animates struggles
over belonging in an effort to elucidate
broader political struggles around place
identity and visibility, toponyms, and African
American identity. As Schein (2009) has
argued, such an oppositional politics of
belonging focuses not only on moments of
exclusion but also points of intervention,
where marginalized groups might claim
citizenship and, in this case, struggle to create
a more inclusive and just place name system.
A case study of streets named for slain civil
rights leader Martin Luther King Jr offers an
opportunity to explore place naming as a
cultural arena for racial and ethnic minority
struggles to reshape the identity of landscapes,
the contours of social memory, and the larger
sense of political membership and social
inclusion communicated within the public
realm. King’s namesakes are more than just
monuments to the USA Civil Rights Move-
ment. They are the materialization of ongoing
African American claims for civil rights, racial
equality, and civic fairness in historical
representation. Many street naming propo-
nents see the toponymic process as an
antiracist spatial practice, a way of inscribing
a new vision of race relations into the
American landscape. At the same time, the
King street naming process is actively shaped
by racism, white privilege, and a locational
discrimination that threatens to reinforce,
rather than challenge, the spatial and social
boundaries that have traditionally constrained
black power and identity within cities—
a bitterly ironic memorial to a man famous
for battling segregation (Messner and Vail
2009). A growing body of work, particularly
in this journal, has investigated whiteness and
the construction of white privilege as part of
the racialization of place (e.g. Hankins et al.
2012; Housel 2009; Van Riemsdijk 2010).
As Wilton (2002: 307) found in not in my back
yard (NIMBY) conflicts, and as evident in
controversies over attaching King’s name to
certain city streets, community opposition
over the siting or locating of activities can
facilitate the reproduction of white privilege
and reinforce a notion of community as a
place ‘where particular groups belong and
others do not.’
The street name politics of remembering Dr
King serves as an effective way to think, more
broadly, about place naming as a mechanism
of spatial (in)justice, a theoretical connection
that to date has not been discussed in the
toponymic literature or the general social and
cultural geography literature. Spatial justice
stresses the spatiality of belonging, recogniz-
ing that social (in)justice does not simply have
geographical outcomes; rather, space plays a
more fundamental role in constituting and
structuring the broader processes of discrimi-
nation or equality (Iveson 2011). Indeed, the
contested politics of naming streets for King is
not simply a matter of determining whether
the civil rights leader’s name will be inscribed
Street naming and the politics of belonging 213
into the landscape but also debating where
that name is best situated within public space.
As African American activists have long and
stubbornly asserted, it is not enough to name
just any street for King. In fact, some of them
have refused to rename a road for the civil
rights leader when they believe the street does
not occupy a sufficiently prominent or visible
place in cities or does not transgress long-
standing racial and economic divides. The
ultimate location of a named street affects the
social meaning and political efficacy of King’s
commemoration while also symbolizing the
degree of cultural power and rights held by
black citizens. Confining where King can be
remembered publicly, especially in relation to
the aforementioned social divides, places
limits on recognizing and recovering the civil
rights leader’s historical identity as a challen-
ger to the liberal-democratic-capitalist order,
thus contributing to a larger national amnesia
about his radical legacies (Dyson 2000).
In this study, we focus on street naming in
terms of the ‘right to participate’ and the ‘right
to appropriate,’ and identify some of the
barriers that hinder the full realization of these
rights for African Americans and the creation
of a street name landscape that truly reflects
the teachings of King. In doing so, we broaden
the application of the idea of belonging within
landscape analysis and advance an empirical
understanding of the oppositional politics of
street naming. Two brief case studies from the
southeastern USA (Statesboro, Georgia and
Greenville, North Carolina) illustrate how
opponents, sometimes with the (un)witting
cooperation of black activists, impose spatial,
scalar limits on the rights of African Amer-
icans to participate in the street naming
process and appropriate the spatial identity
of streets outside of their neighborhoods, thus
creating procedural and distributive injustices
in the toponymic commemoration of King.
Socially critical approach to place naming
From the perspective of critical place name
studies, ‘assigning a name to a given location
does much more than merely denote an
already-existing “place”.’ Rather, ‘the act of
naming is itself a performative practice that
calls forth the “place” to which it refers’ and
thus participates in the social construction of
the landscape and its meaning to people (Rose-
Redwood et al. 2010: 454). In the words of
Price (2004: 31), naming represents ‘a sort of
conjuring, a bringing into being of place and
with it, a specific and scripted understanding
of collective identity tied to that place.’
Moreover, place names do not simply reflect
people’s religious beliefs, ethnic origins,
perceptions of nature, and political values.
They also project and work to legitimize these
beliefs and values, affecting the sense of place
of future generations and what they perceive
as the natural or assumed order of things
(Azaryahu 1996).
Because of the cultural power of naming,
social actors and groups place great value on
controlling the messages communicated on
and through the place name landscape.
Humans name places to create a sense of
order and they frequently choose names that
give voice to their perspective. In doing so,
people invariably silence other point of views
and cultural identities. Naming also represents
a means of taking ownership of places, both
materially and symbolically. ‘In this way
naming can be an act of intervention, a way
of organizing and giving meaning to place and
thus staking a claim and imposing ways of
conceptualizing and navigating in it’ (Peteet
2005: 158). It is little surprise then that in
many world regions, a renaming of geographic
features accompanied European colonial
exploration. Explorers and mapmakers not
214 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
only projected their Western values onto the
landscape but also excluded and devalued the
naming systems of original inhabitants, in
effect writing off native knowledge (Bassett
1994). Even though place names can appear
banal and without controversy, they are
nevertheless ‘caught up in the dialectic of
remembering and forgetting that characterizes
so many white settler societies built on
the dispossession of Aboriginal lands’ (Berg
2011: 20).
Although place naming can be conceptual-
ized as a form of control or dispossession, this
domination is rarely complete and can be
challenged. Indeed, an important part of the
politics of place naming approach is recog-
nition that naming is not always controlled by
elites and traditionally dominant groups.
Naming can also be appropriated by less
powerful stakeholders who wish to construct a
more prominent public identity and have a
greater democratic role in the fashioning of the
landscape (Alderman 2008). In this respect,
place naming has the capacity to serve as a
form of resistance, whether that resistance
involves a formal political appropriation of
the naming process or a more informal verbal
or visual contestation of the everyday auth-
ority of an official toponym (Jones and
Merriman 2009; Kearns and Berg 2002;
Rose-Redwood 2008b). Kadmon (2004) has
used the term ‘toponymic warfare’ to describe
instances in which marginalized nationalities
and linguistic cultural groups within countries
rewrite place names on maps as part of their
campaigns of resistance.
Of course, it is important to note that place
name resistance from marginalized groups can
elicit its own resistance from opponents to
changing the status quo (Kearns and Berg
2002). In addition, Rose-Redwood (2008a)
has rightly argued that the landscape cannot
always be reduced to a monolithic discussion
of the dominance of elites and the resistance of
the marginalized. Tensions and struggles over
naming occur within elite and marginalized
groups as well as between them. Place names
are public symbols to which people attach
meaning and from which they draw identity.
Names evoke powerful connotations and
associations and, as symbolic texts, they are
embedded in larger systems of meaning and
ideology that are read, interpreted, and acted
upon differently by people, sometimes in
counter instinctual ways. Indeed, the political
fractures that often surround remembering
King on roadways do not always fall along
racial lines. The street naming process, while
heavily charged racially, can be characterized
by competing goals, if not sometimes opposi-
tion, from African Americans as well as white
cooperation and co-option.
The metaphor of ‘cultural arena’ offers one
possible way of understanding the socially
constructed and contestable nature of place
naming. An arena approach recognizes place
naming as part of the broader production of
public space and the capacity of naming—as a
place-making process—to serve as sites of
contest, debate, and negotiation. Social groups
and actors within those groups, with varying
goals and levels of power and resources,
compete for the right to name the landscape
and cast legitimacy on their political vision,
cultural history, and identity (Alderman
2002). The arena metaphor recognizes the
highly public and performative nature of
debates over toponymic practice as people
seek to influence collective decisions or
policies and justify their claims. The assigning
and authorizing of toponyms can be arenas for
international, geopolitical struggles, such as
the tension between South Korea and Japan
over the name of the ‘Sea of Japan,’ which the
Koreans see as a legacy of colonialism and
prefer to call the ‘East Sea’ (Arai 2003). Place
Street naming and the politics of belonging 215
name debates can also be more local in nature,
such as public controversy in Canadian cities
over the selling of naming rights for buildings
to corporations to raise public revenue
(Hopper 2012).
For the purposes of this study, we are
interested in place names in the context of
racial and ethnic identity and how the
toponymic process serves as an arena for
asserting and debating the cultural, political,
and legal right of minority groups to reshape
the identity of urban places and the broader
collective memory of cities and, in turn, the
nation. Governments are under growing
pressure to be sensitive to the place name
interests of minorities. Australian officials, for
example, are moving toward the restoration
and use of Aboriginal place names and the
involvement of these indigenous communities
in the naming process (Hodges 2007).
A similar movement has taken place in New
Zealand with the reinstatement of Maori
toponyms as a way of redressing that group’s
historical marginalization, although that pro-
cess, as in Australia, has evoked resistance and
accusations of reverse racism from conserva-
tive whites (Berg and Kearns 1996). As Hay
et al. (2004) found, the racial politics of public
commemoration and renaming places can also
be characterized by locational debates and
discrimination even as authorities seek to
bring greater public attention to the represen-
tation of indigenous histories. In Adelaide,
Australia, for example, city and state spon-
sored efforts to recognize Aborigines through
place renaming ‘overwhelmingly link indi-
geneity with the city’s periphery, not its
cultural core’ and ‘the landscape of indigenous
(historical) presence is confined to large
parkland areas’ that are perceived by many
people as dangerous and forbidding (Hay et al.
2004: 210). As this previous study suggests
and as we argue in this paper, the spatiality of
ongoing efforts to recognize historically
silenced racial and ethnic groups through
place names is critical to their transformative
potential—where we remember matters along
with what (and who) we remember. A similar
marginalization of memory and identity can
be found operating within the contested
geography of Martin Luther King Jr streets.
A street fit for a King?
The debates that surround toponyms are
especially evident when they involve historical
commemoration, that is when the struggle to
name a place is linked to deciding who has the
right to determine what is remembered (and
forgotten) publicly and officially (Azaryahu
1996). Public commemoration is a political act
and can serve as a tool for minority groups to
contest the authority of the hegemonic
group (McDowell 2012). Racial and ethnic
minorities in the USA increasingly turn to
place naming, and commemorative street
naming in particular, as a political strategy
for addressing exclusion and misrepresenta-
tion within traditional, white-dominated con-
structions of local and national heritage. This
strategy has led to the removal of racially and
ethnically derogatory place names as well as
the renaming of places in ways that recognize
the historical importance of America’s major
minority groups (Monmonier 2006). As Swart
(2008) has found with street naming in post-
World War II Germany and post-apartheid
South Africa, commemorative toponyms can
function as a ‘form of symbolic reparation,’
allowing victims of oppression and discrimi-
nation to reclaim dignity and identity, while
also allowing the history of the country to be
African Americans have been especially
vocal in calling for changes to the place
216 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
name landscape of the USA. In arguing for a
greater public recognition of their experiences
and struggles, African American activists have
carried out a campaign of renaming places to
celebrate black historical figures, particularly
from the Civil Rights Movement (Tretter
2011). These name changes reflect an effort
to create a place identity and image that can
assist in reconstructing and enhancing the
group identity of African Americans and
giving a material tangibility and permanence
to that refashioned identity on the landscape.
By naming landscapes in ways that talk about
the historical importance of minorities, Afri-
can Americans seek to change the way they are
valued in the present and, in turn, the future
(Alderman 2006). Street names have proven to
be a popular battleground for these struggles
for legitimacy because of the way they
permeate our daily vocabulary—both verbal
and visual.
(Re)naming roads for Martin Luther King Jr
is especially important in African American
efforts to rewrite the commemorative street
name landscape of the USA. Although the
Civil Rights Movement was carried out by
many leaders and workers, King is perhaps the
most widely identified national icon associated
with the struggle for racial justice, often to the
exclusion of the many women, young people,
and local activists who also drove the Move-
ment (Dwyer and Alderman 2008). By 2010,
at least 893 cities and towns in the USA had
named a street for King. Although these
named streets are found in forty states and
the District of Columbia, over 70 per cent of
them are clustered in the southeastern region
among both large cities and small towns. It is
in the southeast where the earliest Civil Rights
Movement battles were fought and the current
home of a majority of the country’s African
American population.
On the surface, the widespread presence of
King streets belies their contested nature,
seeming to signal a victory for African
Americans and progressive whites when, in
reality, the naming process and the ultimate
location of these streets tell a different story.
Street name commemoration of King evokes
highly public protests and debates because of
its potential to touch and connect disparate
groups—some of which may not identify with
King (Alderman 2000). Yet, as Caliendo
(2011) has argued, the controversy over
honoring King with a street name is not only
about the civil rights leader’s social and
historical contributions but also about people
contesting the racial (re)signification of space
and the (re)negotiation of individual and
collective identity. One of the largest obstacles
facing African Americans is the prevailing
assumption among the conservative white
establishment and other opponents that
King’s name should be confined spatially to
the African American community rather than
cut across traditional racial boundaries in
cities. For many activists, naming a major
thoroughfare that stretches beyond minority
neighborhoods is essential to educating the
broader white public about the importance of
King and all African Americans. These debates
about where (and where not) to locate King’s
name and memory take place between blacks
and whites, but they also occur within the
African American community and thus
prompt us not to essentialize black identities
and political goals. Some naming activists
articulate different spatial strategies, which
include naming streets only in black neighbor-
hoods (Alderman 2003). Some naming pro-
ponents are more interested in inspiring and
mobilizing their fellow African Americans
(rather than challenging the historical
consciousness of whites), while others fear
losing ownership of the civil rights leader’s
Street naming and the politics of belonging 217
image in light of the vagaries of white-
controlled place naming decisions.
Some opposing whites believe that naming a
street for King will stigmatize the identity of
their neighborhood. ‘As a direct result of racial
(mis)representations in public memory, King
streets ...signify Blackness, poor Black
people, and even a dangerous neighborhood
whereby commemoration recalls not social
achievements by African Americans but a
socioeconomic decay of Black neighborhoods’
(Caliendo 2011: 1157). There are King streets
that defy that image (see Mitchelson et al.
2007), but public opposition frequently leads
to the naming of side streets or portions of
roads located within struggling, African
American areas of cities and towns. 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.’
Although the politics of naming streets for
Martin Luther King are struggles to define
King’s historical reputation and his cross-
racial resonance (Alderman 2002), the topo-
nymic process also speaks to the obstacles that
face African Americans as they struggle to
challenge and reverse the spatial and social
control historically exercised by whites over
racial and ethnic minorities in the USA. These
struggles prompt us to consider how the Civil
Rights Movement, both in terms of how it has
changed society and how it is remembered, is
an evolving and unfinished project. Rather
than a simply symbolic gesture, street naming
for many African American activists is about
gauging society’s relative progress in fulfilling
the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, to
ground truth contemporary race relations and
to gauge, materially, public attitudes about
equality and justice.
Street naming and spatial justice
In viewing place naming as an arena for
debating identity, memory, and justice, it is
important to think about naming as a cultural
right. One should also reflect on how the
geography of place names—where they are
located and, even more importantly, where
they are not—can advance or obstruct the
realization of the political goals of historically
marginalized social groups. As mentioned
earlier, political struggles over naming streets
for King often revolve around the issue of
location, with proponents and opponents
putting forth competing ideas about where
best to emplace King’s name and memory
within the cultural landscape and who in effect
has a right to certain public spaces in the city.
At the same time, citizenship can be spatially
managed through the structure of decision-
making (Dunn 2003). As we illustrate in this
study, one’s physical and socio-economic
location within a city, particularly in relation
to the potentially renamed street, is frequently
used by government authorities and naming
opponents to define and limit the place naming
rights of African Americans.
Spatial (in)justice is a useful concept for
understanding how King street naming pro-
ponents view and mobilize their cause in
218 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
spatial terms and how the opposition responds
by actively using geography to contest these
claims to the city. The concept of spatial justice
is of growing popularity not only in geography
but across the humanities, social sciences, and
planning circles (Bromberg et al. 2007; Dikec¸
2001; Soja 2010). Spatial justice recognizes
that social, economic, and political injustices
are frequently based on and perpetuated
through the ways in which we organize, use,
and control places and spatial processes.
Social life is inherently territorialized and any
meaningful effort to create social justice must
address the geographic order that constitutes
and shapes social inequalities and unfair
decision-making processes (Bromberg et al.
2007: 2).
Recent geographic work on belonging has
been especially important for understanding
spatial justice and connections to landscape.
Although a sense of belonging is certainly a
personal emotional attachment to place, it is
also a socially mediated matter. Belonging,
according to Antonsich (2010), is related to
the discourses and practices of socio-spatial
inclusion and exclusion, a means of defining
membership to a group and ownership of a
place. Schein (2009: 811) pointed to the
importance of examining struggles over
belonging, stressing how certain social groups,
particularly African Americans, have been
‘written out’ of landscape representations of
history and hence notions of regional and
national identity. Specifically, it is the tension
between belonging and exclusion that anima-
tes these political struggles and by connecting
racialized and territorial politics these
struggles lie at the intersection of rights and
identity. For example, Alderman and Modlin
(forthcoming) state: ‘[d]ominant social groups
consciously define the terms of belonging as
they seek to impose cultural coherence and fix
the boundaries of identity of “us” and “them”’
and that ‘this politics of belonging is often
carried out geographically, in the way we
construct places materially and symbolically.’
As a consequence it is incumbent on scholars
to focus on the intersectionality of identity,
place, and toponyms to explore the competing
and sometimes contradictory political
struggles the fight over naming entails.
Using geographic understandings of
‘belonging’ as a framework, we analyze the
politics of naming American roads after
Martin Luther King Jr in terms of the ‘right
to appropriate’ and the ‘right to participate.’
Although these rights have been examined
previously in the context of Lefebvre’s right to
the city (Purcell 2003), they have saliency and
meaning beyond the specific way that the
French thinker critiqued capitalism and the
state and conceived the claiming of space by
inhabitants. Noting the potentially proble-
matic and marginalized position that African
American spatial claims and struggles holds in
the traditional right to the city literature,
Inwood (2012) has recently argued for a
broader and more inclusive notion of rights
that addresses the legacies of racial segregation
and exclusion and the history of uneven access
to urban spaces by people of color. Our
analysis of street naming examines the right to
participate and appropriate within the broader
context of African American opposition to the
legacies of racism and white privilege, allow-
ing us to identify some of the distributive and
procedural injustices that characterize the
naming process and the central role that
space, especially scale, play.
Right to appropriate and distributive
injustices of street naming
When African Americans use street naming to
exercise their right to appropriate urban space
Street naming and the politics of belonging 219
literally in the name of King, they employ a
strategic mapping of the city, figuratively and
sometimes literally, to find a street that best fits
their political and commemorative agenda.
According to Purcell (2002: 103) the right to
appropriate means ‘not only the right of
[marginalized social groups] to occupy
already-produced urban space’ but also ‘the
right to produce urban space so that it meets
the needs of inhabitants.’ In other words, to
rework the spatial and social relations that
have historically reproduced racially segre-
gated urban space, street naming proponents
pay close attention to and try to achieve a
distributive justice in which King and the
African American community are recognized
publicly. Distributive justice has long been a
foundation concept in social justice studies
(Rawls 1971) and it continues to be important
within geography (Boone et al. 2009; Merrett
2004). Distributive justice is traditionally
concerned with ensuring a fair allocation of
goods and opportunities among social groups,
but the concept, when defined in spatial or
‘territorial’ terms, can be broadened and
enriched significantly (Harvey 1973). Distri-
butive justice also focuses on public access to
certain place-based resources or services as
well as the geographic distribution of social
groups relative to certain opportunities and
hazards (Bullard and Johnson 1997; Omer and
Or 2005; Walker and Day 2012).
Applying a spatial justice framework to
place naming prompts us to go beyond simply
determining the sheer presence or absence of a
name on a landscape. It is also important to
consider the intra-urban location of the
toponym and how the appropriation and
production of urban space through naming are
situated in relation to wider geographic
distributions of people, wealth, and transpor-
tation within cities and towns. The distributive
reach of place names affects who will have
direct contact with the name (and conversely,
who will not) as well as the general landscape
prominence of the name—all of which impact
a minority group’s power to reshape the city so
that they are seen and heard. The ability of
street names to (re)distribute certain meanings
and identities across the city does not simply
raise the visibility of King and the black
community, but signals an important widening
of the ‘distribution of citizenship’ (Dunn
2003) and broader messages about who
matters and belongs.
Larger questions of geographic distributions
and access to urban space are especially
important in shaping the meaning and efficacy
of naming streets after Martin Luther King Jr.
Assessing whether the streets achieve distribu-
tive justice requires asking questions such as:
Where are King’s namesakes located in
relation to the spatial distribution of race
and class distinctions within cities? To what
extent do streets named for King occupy
central civic spaces and are geographically
accessible to the larger community, especially
whites? To what extent do King streets,
because of their location, operate as a bridge
or boundary between different social and
economic areas of cities? Martin Luther King
streets—depending on their place in relation to
wider distributions of people and resources—
could work to marginalize or raise the
visibility and public importance of African
Americans. As Raento and Watson (2000:
728) contended: ‘Naming and re-naming are
strategies of power, and location matters,
because this power is only truly exercised
when it is “seen” in the appropriate place.’
The theme of distributive justice appears in
the comments of many African Americans
who push to have a street named, even if they
do not express it exactly in those terms.
Important to their vision of appropriating and
producing a legitimate place for King is
220 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
making sure that, relationally, the named road
transcends traditional racial boundaries and
occupies a location that is situated within a
social geography that embodies integration
and inclusiveness rather than marginalization
and segregation. Facing public opposition to
such proposals, municipal authorities tend to
pursue a distributional tactic that does the
exact opposite. They agree to rename only
part of a major street that aligns with the
geographic boundaries of the African Amer-
ican community, not allowing the name
change to encroach on white, wealthier parts
of the same street. Although officials believe
this spatial confinement strategy effective in
minimizing (white) controversy and suppo-
sedly appeasing the black community, vocal
street naming proponents have frequently
interpreted it as racist and have called to
have King’s name extended spatially down the
entire length of road.
As Alderman (2003) would argue, the social
construction of scale lies at the heart of
controlling the distributive justice of street
naming and the right of African Americans to
appropriate the production of space beyond
their neighborhoods. Scale plays an important,
but often under-theorized role, in the politics
of place naming (Hagen 2011). Toponymic
disputes do not simply happen at different
fixed scales. Rather, proponents and
opponents compete to determine the geo-
graphic scale at which King and African
Americans will be recognized and, in turn, the
scale at which associations or linkages would
(or would not) be created between the wider
white community and its black citizens.
Maintaining racial segregation requires a
policing of scale in which certain activities by
African Americans are allowed in certain
places as long as they are not scaled beyond
the black community and disrupt segregated
space. In fighting to maintain or redefine this
scale of racial power relations, proponents and
opponents deploy different scalar configur-
ations of identity and citizenship when com-
peting to name a place. In the words of Rose-
Redwood (2011: 38), proponents of achieving
a distributive justice through King street
naming advocate for a ‘toponymic rescaling,’
hoping to reframe the spatial identities of
places in new ways that literally and figura-
tively make more room for African American
belonging. In contrast, opponents to this
rescaling rely on and publicly perform a
traditional urban scalar narrative that uses
racial fear, residential segregation, and the
rhetoric of neighborhood invasion to justify
keeping the black community and King in
their place.
A street naming dispute in Greenville, North
Carolina, exposes how opponents impose
scalar limits on the right of African Americans
to appropriate the identity of urban space and
how African Americans react to this distribu-
tive injustice in different, conflicting ways.
Greenville is located in eastern North Carolina
approximately 85 miles from the state capitol
of Raleigh. Greenville’s West Fifth Street
became Martin Luther King Jr Drive in
1998. Originally, the African American lea-
ders who brought forward the request wanted
all of Fifth Street renamed—not just part of
it—but residents and business owners on the
eastern end strongly opposed the proposal.
King’s namesake marks a downtown area that
is predominantly African American, whereas
East Fifth is mostly white (Batchelor 2006a).
Moreover, a clear difference in wealth and
development exists between the east and west
segments of the street. This racial and
economic boundary has long been in place
and some older Greenville African Americans
have spoken about how East Fifth Street was
‘forbidden territory’ for them historically
(Namaz 2006: A12).
Street naming and the politics of belonging 221
Proposals to extend King’s name down the
rest of Fifth Street were made by local African
Americans in subsequent years. However,
these efforts failed to win approval of the
Greenville City Council, leading to
deep frustration within the city’s African
American community. One prominent African
American leader, Michael Garrett, was quoted
as saying: ‘Having a street that runs straight
through town with a different name in the
black section is a throwback to the old Jim
Crow Days’ (Batchelor 2006b: B1). Of course,
Jim Crow was not simply about separating the
races. It was also about normalizing unequal
power between the races. One proponent for
extending King down all of Fifth Street, Rufus
Huggins (2006: D2), sought to challenge the
taken for granted nature of white privilege at
work through the street name controversy:
‘Greenville citizens do not realize [that] most
streets in the predominantly black community
are named after someone white ....our white
brothers and sisters have a problem with just
having one street [in the white communi-
ty] ...being named after someone black.’
In January of 2006, the local chapter of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC) led a boycott of the Martin Luther
King Prayer Breakfast in protest of the city’s
failure to rename all of Fifth Street. This action
sparked several months of public debate, with
many residents along East Fifth continuing
their adamant opposition to the renaming.
King supporters held marches down Fifth
Street including the eastern section. One of
these marches drew resistance from a group of
young white men who taunted the marchers,
yelled ‘Fifth Street Rules,’ and displayed the
Confederate Battle Flag, long a symbol of
white racist resistance in the southeastern USA
(White 2006). Although proponents for
renaming the entire length of Fifth sought to
rescale the identity of the street and to assert
their right to appropriate a previously for-
bidden portion of urban space, opponents
clearly placed boundaries around King’s
meaning and the legitimacy local black
citizenship. Many East Fifth residents claimed
that their street name had historical value and
was part of their heritage (Spell 2006),
angering some African Americans who
thought King was more historically important
than a numeral. Others suggested that King’s
name would bring down property values and
invite crime, gangs, and illegal drugs into their
neighborhoods, and that limiting the scale of
the street naming was essential to the social
preservation of the East Fifth neighborhood
(Gabbard 2006). In making this argument,
critics pointed to the depressed condition of
the existing King Drive. African Americans
were, in effect, blamed for being the victims of
broader processes of inequality, discrimi-
nation, and segregation, and opponents called
into question their identity as responsible
citizens and whether they had the right to
appropriate other urban spaces when they
supposedly could not take care of their own.
Seeking to settle what they saw as a
contentious issue and unwilling to force East
Fifth Street to undergo an address change,
municipal leaders voted along racial lines in
late 2006 to place King’s name on the then-
undeveloped US 264 Bypass that partially
encircled Greenville. The bypass had been
identified as an alternative by an ad hoc
committee organized by East Carolina Uni-
versity, who claimed ‘neutrality’ even though
it owned a significant amount of property on
East Fifth. Believing that there was an NC
Department of Transportation rule against
roads having duplicate names, the council also
voted to have the existing Martin Luther King
Jr Drive revert back to West Fifth Street
(Batchelor 2006c). Even after discovering that
such a rule did not exist, white municipal
222 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
leaders approved the removal of King’s name,
prompting some in the African American
community to argue that the name change was
part of a larger plan of redevelopment and
black dispossession planned for the area
(Batchelor 2007).
Not all whites opposed renaming all of Fifth
Street and several outspoken white citizens
protested the decision to move King’s name to
the bypass. African Americans also held
different views about how (and where) best
to honor King. Indeed, three prominent black
leaders who had initially called for the
renaming of East Fifth Street later reversed
themselves and supported the bypass option,
much to shock and anger of other African
American leaders, including two city council
members. White city council members took
advantage of the situation, asserting that the
dissenting African American leaders rep-
resented the ‘real’ views of the black commu-
nity and that the presence of ideological
differences among African Americans some-
how made the campaign to name all of Fifth
Street less legitimate. These assertions drew
upon a long-standing racist supposition that
African Americans form a monolithic com-
munity with a single voice. The leaders who
now advocated for the naming of bypass were
motivated by personal rivalries with other
black leaders and the belief that renaming East
Fifth was increasingly out of reach and naming
a new road was better than King’s name
remaining segregated. Also important to them
were arguments from white citizens that the
street name debate was unnecessarily dividing
the local community along racial lines, and
thus a peaceful compromise was needed
(Johnson 2006). But what kind of peace was
produced? To use King’s own words, by
moving the civil rights leader’s name to the
bypass, white city council members con-
structed a ‘negative peace’ or an absence of
tension (for whites) rather than constructing a
‘positive peace,’ which King characterized as a
presence of justice for African Americans
(King 1986[1963]: 295).
The dialectical interplay between positive
and negative peace is central to understanding
fundamental tensions inherent in the discourse
of belonging. In its negative form, peace
implies the stopping of some existing, or
pending act of discrimination or injustice. As a
consequence, negative peace-building prac-
tices often focus on remedying perceived
wrongs. Positive peace-building practices, on
the other hand, are ‘practices that encourage
the growth of social, political and legal
institutions that address the underlying causes’
of inequality and often focus on supporting
institutions and processes that try to break
cycles of discrimination (Inwood and Tyner
2011: 448). By engaging in the process to
rename only portions of Fifth Street, the
political leadership in Greenville was promot-
ing a process that ‘recognized’ King, but failed
to address the underlying histories of discrimi-
nation, segregation, and uneven access to
resources that have characterized the separate
and unequal geographies of Jim Crow segre-
gation. As a consequence the fundamental
question of who belongs to what and on
whose terms is obscured from the debate
(Schein 2009). Thus, the decision by the white
political leadership to rename only part of
Fifth Street was a none-to-subtle reinforce-
ment of historic geographies of exclusion and
discrimination, which while conforming to
negative peace-building practices, ultimately
obfuscated the larger question of resources
that is at the heart over struggles around
belonging. Toponymy matters then, not just
about what it tells us about the past, but also
about how it is often the first step in broader
struggles over social, political, and economic
Street naming and the politics of belonging 223
capital that may fundamentally alter historic
patterns of exclusion and discrimination.
Accordingly, even though some opponents
to renaming East Fifth, and even some black
leaders, saw the naming of the bypass as a
legitimate appropriation of urban space in the
name of King and African Americans, it was
ultimately an appropriation and production of
space that never really achieved the distribu-
tive justice and the rescaling of urban spatial
identity and race relations that was originally
intended. In fact, Greenville’s naming dispute
might speak, more powerfully, to the power of
the white community to access and reshape
urban space through place naming and
indicates potential limitations of belonging
struggles that do not outline and connect to
broader struggles over economic and political
resources. African Americans living along
King, now West Fifth Street, had to bear the
expense and inconvenience of changing their
address, to ensure, in effect, that white
property owners on East Fifth Street would
not have to do so. Tragically, one might argue
that African Americans lost the right to
appropriate and produce space in their own
neighborhood, especially in light of the many
Martin Luther King birthday celebrations and
marches historically held on the once named
road and the impossibility of holding those
same activities on a busy four-lane bypass.
Moreover, the controversial decision to move
King out of downtown ensured that the
geography of the civil right leader’s commem-
oration would not violate the territorial limits
and sense of divided racial order of the white
community on East Fifth Street that may have
destabilized historic geographies of Jim Crow
segregation. Because street naming propo-
nents sought to use the scaling of place naming
as a way of testing as well as creating racial
integration, the city’s decision represented, in
both literal and figurative terms, a bypassing
of King’s proverbial dream and illustrated the
limits of the politics of belonging.
Right to participate and procedural
injustices of street naming
Interestingly, the politics of belonging also
stresses the importance of the ‘right to
participate,’ which gives ‘inhabitants the
right to take a central role in decision-making
surrounding the production of urban space’
(Purcell 2003: 578). Exercising the right of
participation (along with appropriation),
citizens can assert their use rights and directly
challenge the hegemony of property rights and
the valuing of urban space as a commodity to
exchange (Purcell 2002). Rose-Redwood et al.
(2010) have called for a greater consideration
and protection of the use value of place names
in the face of growing efforts to commercialize
toponyms and place naming rights and
decision-making. Although the actual selling
and buying of naming rights is an important
infringement on the right of ordinary people to
participate in the production of space, the
socially exclusionary nature of toponymic
decision-making is felt across cities beyond
merely financial transactions, especially when
public authorities view place naming rights as
a natural extension of property rights. This is
particularly evident when examining the
procedural injustices that hinder African
American participation in the renaming of
streets outside of their neighborhoods.
Procedural justice, like distributive justice,
has an established history in social science and
geography (Boone et al. 2009; Merrett 2004;
Young 1990). Scholars recognize that a lack of
fairness in how public disputes and decisions
are made and legally resolved can impact one’s
right to participate as well as produce and
sustain unequal distributive outcomes and
224 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
access. Naming and renaming places involve
decision-making procedures and policies in
addition to general ideological or cultural
considerations (Azaryahu 1997). A procedural
or participatory justice perspective would
address the factors that limit the full partici-
pation of African Americans in local govern-
ment decisions about whether to name a street
for King and which specific street to rename.
Even when a street is renamed for the civil
rights leader, it can still work to exclude
African Americans if they have no actual voice
in the naming process. This can happen when
municipal leaders reject initial requests to
rename major thoroughfares and elect instead
to attach King’s name to smaller streets,
sometimes overriding the protests of the
activists who brought the original proposal
to city leaders.
There is frequently a spatial context to the
procedural injustices of naming streets for
King. Many local governments enforce a
rather narrow geographic as well as social
scaling of cultural citizenship when renaming
a street. One’s citizenship or ‘right to the
street’ is defined by where one is located in
relation to the street and the economic
conditions underlying that locational
relationship. In many street name debates,
those who own property along potentially
renamed streets often play a deciding role in
name changes, even though the street (and by
extension, its name) is theoretically a public
space rather than a private good. Indeed, some
cities and towns have responded to contro-
versy over selecting a street to rename for King
by establishing ordinances that require a
majority (and sometimes even a supermajor-
ity) share of property owners located on a
particular street to approve a proposed name
change. The interests and opinions of a road’s
property owners are given precedence over
those who rent or simply work or travel on the
road in question. Placing such clear territorial
and class limits on cultural citizenship and
whose voice matters in the place naming
process has seriously limited the ability of
African Americans to honor King on a street
upon which they are not the majority of
property owners.
These restrictive street naming ordinances
work to frame African Americans as ‘outside
agitators’ within their own cities, continuing a
oppositional tactic begun during the Move-
ment to discredit the African American
struggle for equality as non-local and thus
ignoring what King (1986[1963]) referred to
as the mutuality and interrelatedness of all
communities. Even when these procedural
hurdles are not used in direct opposition to
King street naming, they nevertheless affect
the process. Recognizing the difficulty in
getting approval from the many white
property owners on a major road, some
African Americans will propose renaming a
smaller or a less racially diverse segment road
that they know is winnable even if it is not
their first choice. In this respect, even when
black activists are leading the toponymic
process, these ordinances rescale the structure
of political membership and democratic
participation in regressive ways that reproduce
a segregated geography of street naming,
prompting us to consider yet another way
that scale is strategically manipulated to
control and limit place naming rights.
The impact that procedural injustices can
play in shaping the location and racially
distributive scale of the street eventually
named for King was especially apparent in
Statesboro, Georgia (USA). Statesboro, which
is the county seat of Bulloch County, lies
between the two population centers of Macon,
in central Georgia, and Savannah, on the
coast. In February of 1997, African American
leaders from the National Association for the
Street naming and the politics of belonging 225
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
and the Bulloch County Ministerial Alliance
proposed to have Northside Drive renamed
for Martin Luther King Jr (Hackle 1997).
Northside Drive, one of the longest and
busiest commercial arteries in Statesboro, is
part of US Highway 80 and passes by the city’s
mall and nearly 200 businesses. Donnie
Simmons, one the local NAACP leaders
behind the proposal, expressed it best when
he said:
Dr. King lived a highly visible life and should have a
highly visible place named ...I can never agree to
renaming a street restricted to the black community.
This would bury Dr. King in the black community
and say that Dr. King was only for blacks ....King
was against injustice for every man [sic]. (Simmons
Not unlike King street naming struggles
across the country, the proposal to rename
Northside drew significant resistance from the
street’s white property and business owners,
many of whom signed a petition against the
name change. Like their counterparts in other
communities, opponents complained about
the financial burden of changing their address.
In doing so, they downplayed the use value of
the road’s name to African Americans as a
public symbol and stressed the exchange value
of maintaining the name for customers,
suppliers, and their bottom line (Rogers
1997). Although this argument was rep-
resented to the public simply as a matter of
cost and convenience, it actually masked a
deeper anxiety about white discomfort and
protection of racial boundaries for the sake of
commercialism. For instance, the owner of a
business on Northside argued:
When someone calls me up asking for directions to
the store and I say ‘We’re located on MLK road,’
those people might think I’m located on the black
side of town. Now, I’m not a racist but that fact may
keep people from coming to my store. (Henry 1997)
The arguments made by property interests
on Northside Drive proved influential,
prompting the Statesboro City Council in
May of 1997 to unanimously pass an
ordinance that required 75 per cent of
property owners on a street to approve a
proposed name change before it could be
formally voted on by the city council. The
ordinance also required the petitioners of a
street name change to pay half the cost for new
street signage, a policy that spoke to: (1) how
much the city sought to discourage toponymic
changes, especially for major roads and (2) the
extent to which place naming rights were
clearly defined in exchange value terms and
revenue (Gross 1997). Even though the King
street renaming debate began before the
passage of the ordinance, supporters of
renaming Northside were required to follow
the newly created decision-making rules,
which led some black leaders to claim that
the ordinance targeted their request. NAACP
leader Donnie Simmons argued that the
ordinance thwarted the efforts of African
Americans. He contended: ‘They [the city
council] know good and well we’re not going
to get 75 percent of the whites to name a street
for King’ (quoted in Gross 1997: 1A). More-
over, because of the size of Northside Drive, it
was estimated that the cost of the renaming
would be US $8,000 10,000, a sizable sum
for the local NAACP or any minority
The situation was further complicated
by the approval of the new ordinance by
African American city councilman David
Shumake, who argued that the ordinance
provided African Americans a mechanism for
demonstrating public support for renaming to
226 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
the city council. In fact, he argued that the
ordinance would actually protect black inter-
ests by preventing city leaders from later
removing King’s name from Northside once it
was changed. In contrast to Simmons, Shu-
make suggested that ‘Blacks can get Northside
renamed if they organize, shake bushes, and
mobilize,’ although this was difficult to
envision given the level of vitriolic opposition
expressed by the street’s businesses and
property owners. Moreover, he expressed
hesitancy about ‘forcing a street address
change down the throat of the [white]
community’ (Shumake 1997). As this situation
illustrates, even when it appears that African
Americans have a place in the decision-making
process, such as having a seat on the city
council, this does not guarantee that a
procedural or participatory justice is achieved.
The ordinance, by putting the power to initiate
a name change in the hands of those on
Northside rather the city council, worked not
only to limit the place naming rights and
participatory power of the broader Statesboro
African American community but also Shu-
make himself.
Ultimately, Statesboro’s street renaming
ordinance facilitated the renaming of a street
for King, but it was not Northside Drive. In
December 2002, the city council voted to
rename two connecting roads (Blitch and
Institute Streets) after receiving a proposal
from African American city councilman Gary
Lewis. Following ordinance guidelines, Lewis
spent 6 months going door-to-door to collect
signatures from property owners along the
two streets (Martin 2002). Blitch and Institute
Streets were smaller, poorer, and more African
American than Northside. Some opponents,
including members from the NAACP, ques-
tioned the extent to which the chosen streets
were prominent enough to bear King’s name
(Martin 2002). Statesboro’s ordinance not
only made the renaming of a major road
difficult, but also forced black leaders to limit
their commemorative naming agenda to
streets that could be renamed in light of the
property owner requirement and signage cost
requirement, specifically roads largely limited
to the confines of the black community.
Although the ordinance gave proponents
such as Lewis a means of ensuring that
King’s name and memory would have a place
on the landscape, it nevertheless territorialized
the toponymic process and the right to
participate, legally sanctioned the privatiza-
tion of public space, and contributed to the
growing power of property owners and
commercial interests to define the limits of
one’s citizenship and belonging.
Concluding remarks
The rise of the critical school of place name
studies holds great promise for rehabilitating
the image of toponyms within the discipline of
geography as well as giving us a platform for
analyzing the spatial struggles of marginalized
social groups. We have sought to fill avoid in
the geographic literature, which to date has not
widely examined place naming rights in terms
of the struggle for equality and civil rights and
certainly not in the context of social justice
and struggles over belonging. As a rapidly
growing movement that touches people in
intimate and potentially controversial ways,
the naming of streets for King provides a
glimpse into where the country is in terms of
race relations, casting doubt on conservative
declarations that we have moved into a post-
racial or post-civil rights era. Because street
names, as part of public space, connect the
‘visual factual with the sensual –emotional’
(Caliendo 2011: 1148), recognizing King
within the official city text is not simply a
Street naming and the politics of belonging 227
dry retelling of important histories. Rather, for
the African American activist, place naming
can be an emotion-laden and politically
charged spatial tool for redefining the scale
at which they belong in the American city and
the right to stake a claim to urban space.
More than that, however, the struggle over
streets named for King and its connection to
broader scholarly work on the politics of
belonging illuminates the contradictory and
sometimes incommensurate goals of activists
who seek to claim urban space. On the one
hand, the struggle over streets named for King
illustrates the way portions of the African
American community are attempting to assert
themselves into the public discourses of USA
cities. However, as African Americans pursue
street naming as part of claiming a right to
belong, they encounter obstacles—both out-
side of and within their own communities—
that limit the ability to redistribute the
resources of the city that will achieve the
goals of positive peace. This reality illustrates
the limits of struggles over belonging to
fundamentally challenge entrenched economic
and political interests in the city. Public debates
about which street to rename for King and how
that name designation will be situated in
relation to larger racial and economic geogra-
phies provide us the opportunity to think about
how place naming rights can be scaled in ways
that do not achieve King’s vision of positive
peace-building practices that address racism,
militarism, and materialism.
As the case of Greenville illustrates, the street
naming process can be affected by distributive
injustices rooted in broader social ideas about
where (and where not) African Americans
supposedly belong and how far their power to
shape urban space should extend geographi-
cally. These injustices significantly limit the
efforts of place name activists to gain access to
certain urban spaces and to appropriate the
identity of streets outside of their neighbor-
hoods, even though challenging historically
entrenched patterns of racial segregation and
marginalization is exactly the purpose of many
street naming campaigns. Analyzing the pol-
itical struggle to honor Dr King also sheds light
on the struggle for participatory and pro-
cedural justice within place naming rights,
particularly in an urban environment built
upon protecting the exchange value of land-
scapes, privileging property rights over other
cultural rights, and enforcing a vision of public
space that is increasingly privatized and
unthreatened by political activity. As illus-
trated in Statesboro, local governments can
enact narrow social and spatial definitions of
citizenship that restructure the scale and
conditions under which one’s voice matters in
place naming, thus disenfranchising African
Americans from the very decision-making
process that they often help initiate.
Finally, some opponents to naming streets
for King question the very legitimacy of place
naming as a social issue worthy of public
resources and debate, suggesting that African
Americans do not truly know what is best for
the community (Messner and Vail 2009: 28).
Even some African Americans argue that
fellow black activists should concern them-
selves with civil rights issues ‘more important’
than street naming. There are a large number of
worthy social and economic issues in need of
addressing, but it is worth thinking about how
the naming of roads is not necessarily separate
from the broader social justice picture. Naming
streets for King can signal something very
important about the willingness (or unwilling-
ness) of the white community to invest in
African Americans, thus providing (or failing
to provide) a platform on which to bring about
supposedly more ‘substantive’ change and
improvement. When a community refuses to
do something as doable as naming street
228 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
beyond the African American community,
what does that say about the degree to which
the community is really ready or willing to take
on the ‘tough’ issues? The place naming rights
issue is about the struggle to be seen and heard
within public space, an important civil right in
and of itself and one arguably necessary for
other rights to be realized. Plus, we can also
think about how street naming might be
coupled with other social justice campaigns,
such as community redevelopment. Using
places named for King as platforms for
addressing social and economic inequalities is
already being undertaken by organizations
such as Beloved Streets of America in St Louis,
Missouri, the National Alliance of Faith and
Justice in Washington, DC, and the Georgia’s
Client Council through their ‘Claiming a Street
Named King’ program.
The authors wish to thank the three anon-
ymous reviewers for a thoughtful and thorough
review of this manuscript as well as the support
of Michael Brown during the editorial process.
Special appreciation is expressed to Mr Keith
Cooper, who helped lead the unsuccessful
campaign to extend King’s name down all of
Fifth Street in Greenville and who shared his
insights into the struggle. The authors would
also like to acknowledge Dr Daniel Good, who
served as an important contact within the
Statesboro community during its street naming
debates. Finally, this work is dedicated to
Donna and Tyler Alderman.
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Abstract translations
La de
´nomination des rues et la politique d’appa-
rtenance: injustices spatiales dans la comme
tion toponymique de Martin Luther King, Jr
Bien que le tournant critique dans l’e
´tude de
toponymie reconnaı
ˆle central et conteste
les toponymes jouent dans les vies et luttes
´des gens, il y a peu de recherches qui
examinent de manie
`re explicite le droit de
´nommer les lieux en termes de la justice sociale,
la citoyennete
´, et l’appartenance. Nous pre
aux lecteurs la de
´nomination des rues ame
en honneur du leader tue
´du mouvement des droits
civiques Martin Luther King, Jr, en utilisant deux
´tudes de cas bre
`ves du sud-est des Etats-Unis
(Statesboro, Ge
´orgie, et Greenville, Caroline du
Nord) pour discuter les barrie
`res qui entravent la
´ation d’un paysage qui refle
`te vraiment les
enseignements de King. L’opposition a
`la de
nation pour King, qui profit parfois de la
´ration (non) intentionnelle des militants
noirs, impose des limites spatiales et scalaires sur
les droits des afro-ame
´ricains de participer dans le
processus de de
´nommer les rues ainsi que celui de
approprier l’identite
´des rues en dehors de leurs
quartiers. Pourtant plusieurs campagnes de de
mer les rues visent explicitement a
`contester les
modes de se
´gation et de marginalisation raciale
bien e
´tablis. Le cas des rues « King » nous incite a
´chir a
`la toponymie comme me
´canisme de
(in)justice spatiale, qui de
´montre le ro
ˆle fonda-
mental qui joue la ge
´ographie dans la constitution
et la structuration des processus de discrimination
ou d’e
Mots-clefs: justice spatiale, nom de lieu, toponymie,
Martin Luther King, afro-ame
´ricain, appartenance.
Ponerle nombre a las calles y las polı
´ticas de la
pertenencia: injusticias espaciales en la conmemora-
´n toponı
´mica de Martin Luther King, Jr
A partir del giro crı
´tico en los estudios sobre
´n de lugares, se reconoce el lugar
central y, a la vez resistido, que los topo
´nimos tienen
en la vida de la gente y en las luchas por la
identidad. Sin embargo, los trabajos dedicados a
analizar el derecho a nombrar lugares en te
de justicia social, ciudadanı
´a y pertenencia son
escasos. En este trabajo nos proponemos acercar a
los lectores a la pra
´ctica de llamar a las calles con el
nombre del lı
´der asesinado Martin Luther King, Jr
Para ello, recurrimos a dos breves estudios de caso
en el sudeste de los Estados Unidos (Statesboro,
Georgia y Greenville, Carolina del Norte) a los fines
de discutir los obsta
´culos que dificultan la creacio
de un paisaje que verdaderamente refleje las
˜anzas de King. Nombrar oponentes, a veces
con la (in)consciente cooperacio
´n de activistas de
color, impone lı
´mites espaciales y escalares a los
derechos de los afroamericanos para participar en el
proceso de denominacio
´n de las calles, ası
´como a la
232 Derek H. Alderman & Joshua Inwood
´n de la identidad de las calles fuera de sus
vecindarios. Esto sucede a pesar de que muchas de
las campan
˜as de nombramiento de calles tienen por
finalidad desafiar patrones histo
´ricos de segregacio
racial y de marginalizacio
´n. El caso de las calles
llamadas con el nombre de King, nos incita a pensar
al acto de nombrar calles como un mecanismo de
(in)justicia espacial, y nos muestra el rol funda-
mental que tiene la geografı
´a en la conformacio
´n de los procesos de discriminacio
Palabras claves: justicia espacial, nombramiento de
lugares, toponimia, Martin Luther King, afroamer-
icanos, pertenencia.
Street naming and the politics of belonging 233
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