A street fit for a King?

Site established to spread information and commentary on the (re)naming of streets for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. with the hope of informing public debate

If you use any information or statistics from this site, please cite the source as: Derek Alderman, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville TN  

Email: dalderma@utk.edu, Twitter: @MLKStreet 

ANNOUNCING RESOURCE -- Martin Luther King Streets Project

Documentary by Straight, No Chaser Productions

Naming streets is one of the most widespread and contentious ways of commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.  Debates over whether to name a street for King and which specific street to identify with him have led to the boycott of businesses, protest marches, court actions, petition drives, the vandalizing of roads, and even activists chaining themselves to street signs.  Honoring King with a street name is often controversial when the road in question challenges long-standing racial and economic boundaries within communities.  While few scholars have studied the King street naming phenomena, the naming process is an important indicator of local political tensions as well as broader debates about race, memory, and place in America.  I have studied the politics of naming streets after King for the past several years, seeking to understand the obstacles that face street naming proponents and the various strategies that communities have pursued in finding a street fit for remembering King. In many instances (but not all), public opposition has led King's name to be socially and geographically marginalized within cities, which has worked to stigmatize these streets and create public anxiety about renaming more prominent streets.  As a cultural geographer, my work stresses the importance that location--the street's site, situation, and scale within the city's larger social landscape--plays in shaping the meaning of King's commemoration.    Believing that my research and perspectives can be of some help to the public, I have set up this web page as a resource for engaging and assisting the movement to remember the civil rights leader. 

Below are some research papers that I have written about naming streets for King as well as some questions that I frequently encounter in my discussions with journalists and street naming stakeholders (proponents and opponents).  If you have a question not listed here, email me and I will try to provide some feedback.

Publications Related to MLK Place/Street Naming

Mitchell, Jerry and Derek H. Alderman. 2014. "A Street Named for a King: A Lesson in the Politics of Place-Naming." Social Education 78(3): 137-142.


Alderman, Derek H. and Joshua F.J. 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.

Dwyer, Owen J. and Derek H. Alderman. 2008. Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory.  Book from Center for American Places and University of Georgia Press.


Alderman, Derek H. 2008. "Martin Luther King, Jr. Streets in the South: A New Landscape of Memory." Southern Cultures 14(3): 88-105.


Alderman, Derek H., Steve Spina, and Preston Mitchell. 2008. "A Bumpy Road: the Challenges of Naming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr." Planning 74(1): 18-21. Contribution to American Planning Association magazine.


Alderman, Derek H. and Preston Mitchell. 2007. "A Sign of Changing Times: A Street Renaming Lesson from Chapel Hill, North Carolina." Public Management  89(6): 37-38. Contribution to International City/County Management Association magazine as part of special feature entitled Street Naming: Not as Easy as You Might Think..


Mitchelson, Matthew, Derek H. Alderman, Jeff Popke. 2007. "Branded: The Economic Geographies of MLK Streets." Social Science Quarterly 88(1): 120-145.


Alderman, Derek H. 2006. "Naming Streets after Martin Luther King, Jr.: No Easy Road." In Landscape and Race in the United States, Routledge Press (edited by Richard Schein), pp. 213-236.


Alderman, Derek H. 2003. "Street names and the scaling of memory: The politics of commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. within the African-American community." Area 35 (2): 163-173.


Alderman, Derek H. 2002. "Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Georgia County.Historical Geography 30: 99-120.


Alderman, Derek H. 2002. "School Names as Cultural Arenas: The Naming of U.S. Public Schools after Martin Luther King, Jr." Urban Geography 23(7): 601-626.


Alderman, Derek H. 2000.  "A Street fit for a King: Naming Places and Commemoration in the American South.Professional Geographer 52(4): 672-684.


Alderman, Derek H.  1996. "Creating a New Geography of Memory in the South: The (Re) Naming of Streets in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr."  Southeastern Geographer 36(1): 51-69.

MLK Street Naming Educational Pamphlet

Electronic copy (pdf) of community outreach pamphlet on MLK street naming (produced 2005). Note data are now old. Pamphlet distributed to various schools, activists groups, and civil rights; national meetings of the NAACP and SCLC; and MLK Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.

Outside cover of pamphlet

Inside content of pamphlet 

Frequently Asked Questions about MLK Street Naming (under construction)


Where are streets named for King located?

If you want specific statistics on the number and location of MLK streets, please contact me.

How do you rename a street and still honor the road's former name?

Renaming streets for Martin Luther King can be highly controversial because it often involves removing a road's long-standing name. Chapel Hill, North Carolina offers a potentially useful lesson on how to rename a road for King while not completely erasing a street's former identity. In 2005, the city renamed Airport Road for King after intense public opposition from residential and commercial interests, who cited a strong belief that the street's original name was a key part of their heritage. The controversy prompted Chapel Hill's city council to organize a special committee to study the issue. The committee, composed of a cross-section of stakeholders (including but not limited to property owners on the street), recommended that Airport Road be renamed but charged the city to design a "compromise" street sign. The special signage used in Chapel Hill clearly indicates that Martin Luther King Jr. is the street's address while also designating it as "Historic Airport Road." Such a design has the advantage of minimizing initial confusion from the name change, particularly for visitors who return after the change is implemented. More importantly, the sign gives authority and visibility to the traditional historical identity of a street even as local leaders are called upon to commemorate the civil rights movement. The Chapel Hill case illustrates how our streets can be used to preserve the memory of local landmarks while also recognizing new cultural memories and identities. I would encourage other communities to consider adopting such a design not only when asked to memorialize King but when faced with any street renaming request. Most recently, in August of 2013, the city governmnet of Harrisonsburg, Virgnia voted to follow the Chapel Hill model of signage on their new Martin Luther King street.

Are there social issues more important than street naming?

Proponents for naming streets for King often encounter the argument that African Americans should concern themselves with civil rights issues "more important" than street naming. No doubt, there are a large number of worthy social and economic issues in need of addressing. At the same time, it is worth thinking about how the naming of roads is not necessarily separate from the larger racial/social justice picture. Naming streets for King can signal something very important about the willingness (or unwillingness) of the larger community to invest in African Americans, thus providing (or failing to provide) a platform on which to bring about more "substantive" change and improvement. When that community refuses to do something as seemingly minor as naming street, what does that say about the degree to which the community is really ready or willing to take on the "tough" issues? I have argued in my research that the street naming 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 can be coupled with other larger and "more important" social and economic campaigns on streets in America, such as community redevelopment. The problem is NOT that street naming is inherently less important. Rather it is the limited ways in which we imagine street naming as a social and political tool.  The photo above, from a street naming struggle in Melbourne, Florida, captures the deep emotions that proponents and opponents attach to the street renaming issue.  Street naming proponents in Melbourne were especially vocal about how honoring King was part of a larger campaign against racism.







About Me

Derek Alderman

Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography and Head of the Department of GeographyUniversity of Tennessee-Knoxville

(formerly affiliated with East Carolina University) 

Copy of CV/Resume


Academia.edu Page 

Book on Civil Rights Memorials and Street Naming

Email me at: dalderma@utk.edu

Follow on: @MLKStreet


MLK Street Naming Online Resources

Seattle Times: Roadways Across America

MLK Blvd: Photo Journalism Project

New Georgia Encyclopedia Entry on MLK Streets

Along Martin Luther King (Interview with author Jonathan Tilove)

Beloved Streets of America (organization devoted to revitalizing MLK streets)

MSNBC Story on MLK Streets (Aug. 2013)

Film Project on MLK Street in San Diego (project also has Facebook page)

Radio interview with Virginia Insight (NPR program) on MLK street naming

Wikipedia Site on MLK Streets




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