- Martin Luther King Jr. Streets in the SouthA New Landscape of Memory
“By laying bare the racial fault lines in one community after another, by calling attention to the circumstances of life in the heart of the black community while demanding better, the streets that bear his name are Martin Luther King’s greatest living memorial.”—Haki R. Madhubuti
Traditionally, public commemoration in the South has been devoted largely to remembering the region’s role in the Civil War and the mythic Old South plantation culture supposedly lost as a result of that conflict. These memories remain deeply ingrained in the southern landscape of monuments, museums, historical markers, and place names. Yet, African Americans who seek to make their own claim to the South and its history increasingly challenge Civil War-centered conceptions of the past. Perhaps the best known of these struggles involve ongoing calls to remove public symbols of the Confederacy. At the same time, African American southerners are using direct political action to build memorials that recognize their own historical experiences, struggles, and achievements. A major pillar in this trend is the commemoration of another, quite different revolution from that of the Civil War—the Civil Rights Movement.
The naming of streets after slain Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is the most widespread example of African American efforts to rewrite the landscape of southern commemoration. Despite the growing frequency of naming streets in honor of Dr. King, this new cultural phenomenon has received limited attention, even though the inscription of King’s legacy onto streets is a potentially valuable indicator of where the South is in terms of race relations. On the one hand, communities name streets after King as a result of the increased cultural and political power of African Americans and the liberalization of white attitudes. While the commemorative movement is driven [End Page 88] predominantly by the activism of African Americans, there are noteworthy instances of whites not only supporting the cause but leading it. On the other hand, naming streets for King is often a controversial process that exposes continued racial divisions. Black activists who seek to rename thoroughfares that cut through and connect different communities have confronted significant public opposition. This frequently leads to the placement of King’s name on minor streets or portions of roads located entirely within the African American community. At the same time that Martin Luther King streets speak to how far the South has come since the Movement, they also speak to how far the region still has to go in reaching the dream of racial equality and social justice.
The emergence of Martin Luther King streets increasingly marks the symbolic place that these streets occupy within the lives of southerners and Americans in general. Martin Luther King Drives, Boulevards, and Avenues are important centers of African American identity, activity, and community—constituting what journalist Jonathan Tilove has called “Black America’s Main Street.” These streets are memorial arenas—public spaces for interpreting and debating King’s legacies, grappling with questions of race and racism. For many activists, finding the most appropriate street to identify with him comes with the difficulty of convincing the white establishment that King’s name belongs on major roads, that his legacy has relevance and resonance to everyone’s lives. To marginalize the commemoration of King on side 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.1
Martin Luther King streets serve as points of pride and struggle in the contemporary South. The photographs here challenge negative representations of these roads. As Tilove so keenly observed in Along Martin Luther King, “It has become a commonplace of popular culture to identify a Martin Luther King street as a generic marker of black space and not incidentally, of ruin, as a sad signpost of danger, failure, and decline . . . .”2 Not all of King’s roads are located in blighted areas, and only by exposing and combating that stigmatizing misconception can we hope to show the great potential of placing King’s name...