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Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
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Street Names as Commemorative Landscapes:
The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Derek H. Alderman

The term “commemorative landscape” refers to a wide range of material sites devoted to remembering the past. They run the spectrum from large, ornate monuments that employ symbolism and poetry to the visually generic and more literal narration of the past on highway historical markers. One of the most widespread of commemorative landscape types is the street name. In addition to being an important way of marking and referencing space for the purposes of orientation, street names, and place names in general, are used to create symbolic connections with the past by commemorating and honoring the contributions of historical figures—from industrialists and athletes to military and political leaders. As noted by cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky in Nation into State, the United States has a long history of naming places, especially streets, after patriot heroes and other notables. Consider, for the example, the many places named after Georgia Washington. They include roads, cities, counties, the nation’s capitol, and a whole state. These commemorative place names, according to Zelinsky, play a major role in not only memorializing the past but also encouraging public identification with certain nationalistic political values. Commemorative naming—along with the building of monuments, museums, and other memorial symbols—work to give people a sense of time and community as well as a sense of place.

The Power of the Street Name

Franklin Street, Monroe, N.C. in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Despite its importance, street naming has been relatively under-analyzed in the study of public commemoration. This neglect is due, in part, to the difficulty in inventorying and interpreting the historical references found on the many roadways of the United States, although the advent of searchable databases and geospatial tools has significantly reduced this problem. In addition, it is not always a simple matter to determine for whom a street was named. Is a Franklin Avenue in one’s hometown always a reference to the statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin? Or could it refer to another Franklin who lived in and contributed to the area? Finding out for sure requires archival work in a city or town, going back to the time when the street was first named by governmental authorities. Street names are, by design and function, limited to one or just a few words and thus cannot provide a lengthy description and interpretation of the commemorated figure as one would find at other memorials. Because of this fact, it is possible that a person could live, work, and travel along a named street and not truly know the historical contributions of the person honored along that road. Because street names serve as both address and historical reference, they have a communicative structure and public impact different from other types of commemorative landscapes.

While not discounting the challenges that limit our appreciation of street names, we would be wrong to dismiss the significance of this neglected part of the commemorative landscape. While a street name’s dual existence as an address and commemorative symbol can pose certain limitations, it can also be an advantage. Because of the practical importance of street names, they inscribe ideas about the past into many of the practices and texts of daily life. Street names are found on road maps, phonebook listings, mail, advertising billboards, GPS directions, and, of course, road signs. Thus, the past is given tangibility and familiarity. Through the street name, public commemoration is made part of the language—visual and verbal—of the city and its inhabitants. As some proponents of commemorative street naming suggest, a road arguably touches more people more frequently than a museum, statue, or historical plaque. Hence, while street naming is not as highly evocative as more conventional forms of commemoration, it offers a means of making the past a visible and intimate part of the everyday realm. This ordinariness is part of the cultural power of street names as a commemorative landscape.

Street names, like other types of commemorative landscapes, bring a spatial permanence to the commemoration of the past. Unlike a holiday that focuses intense public attention on a historical figure or event for just one or a few days a year, the commemorative street name serves as a daily reminder of what (and who) is historically important. While street names often are characterized by a permanence that outlives their creators, they are not static commemorative symbols. Government elites in countries such as Israel, Germany, Russia, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia have changed place names—particularly commemorative street names—to advance reinvented notions of national history and identity as political regimes rise and fall. Granted, all monuments and memorials are susceptible to change, but it is especially the case with road names given that they do not have the physical weightiness of other commemorative landscapes. Renaming a street does not require tearing down a statue, relocating an obelisk, melting down historical plaques, or redesigning a museum.

Because street names can be revised to narrate the past in different ways, they provide students of the commemorative landscape a useful indicator of changing social trends in public commemoration. While the United States has not engaged in the same level of rewriting of commemorative street names as other countries, it has not been immune to change. One change that is especially evident in the landscape of American commemorative street names is the growing importance of remembering the historical contributions of African Americans. These name changes not only assert the public importance of minority social groups within the story of the United States, but they also challenge a long tradition of naming places after only white male heroes. The most widespread example of using street names to create a more racially diverse and inclusive commemorative landscape is the naming of roadways for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., although streets have also been named after other African American historical figures, including Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and Rosa Parks.

Martin Luther King Streets

As of 2010, the United States had at least 893 places with a street memorializing Martin Luther King, Jr. King's namesakes are found in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. While King has been honored with street names across the country, the southeastern states have a particularly high density of streets named after him. Over 75% of the nation's Martin Luther King Streets are located in ten Southern states, and North Carolina has the seventh largest number of named streets with 53. This is not surprising given that the South, including North Carolina, was an early battleground in the Civil Rights Movement and that remembering the struggle for racial equality is an increasingly important part of the region and the state’s heritage tourism industry. Naming streets for King occurs throughout the urban hierarchy—from large places such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Chapel Hill to small places such as Grifton, Norlina, Rowland, and St. Pauls. Proposals to name these streets are often brought by local African American community leaders who envision being able to engage in commemoration as part of the democratization of society and the gaining of a greater political voice. Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship between the likelihood of a city naming a street and its racial composition. On average, African Americans make up over a third of the population in a place with a street named for King.

Dr. King did not visit every community that honors him with a street name, but this is not necessarily the point of commemorative street naming. Naming a street for King is not simply a local commemorative practice. It is also about a community participating in a larger national and regional culture of commemoration. The symbolic power of the named street is not simply a product of its place in a single community but also how it joins a larger geography of roads dedicated to King. Not surprisingly, when some African American leaders request that a street be named for King, they cite the fact that other surrounding communities have already named streets and the importance of having a King street in most cities in the United States given his national prominence. The more geographically expansive this commemorative landscape becomes, the more it speaks to King’s larger historical importance. As street naming proponents also assert, all communities have benefited from King’s achievements, regardless of whether he was physically present in the community. A granite marker along Martin Luther King Road in Pawley Island, South Carolina, captures this sentiment best in its inscription: “Honoring a world citizen who never walked this road but whose life’s works helped all of those who do.”

Asserting the broader historical significance of King is not meant to suggest, however, that places with a named street lack significant, place-specific historical connections with the civil rights leader. For instance, a named street can be found in Rocky Mount along with a statue of King and a park dedicated to him. It was in 1962 at the city’s Booker T. Washington gymnasium that King delivered a speech in which he made an early invocation of the “I have a dream” refrain, later made famous in his 1963 Washington, D.C. address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Durham also has a named street. King made several visits to the city during his life, including during the Greensboro Sit-ins of 1960. He was scheduled to speak in Durham on April 4, 1968, but cancelled to come to the aid of striking sanitation workers in Tennessee. He was assassinated that very day on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remembered in Burlington, North Carolina, Edward J. McCauley Photographs, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

The cultural meaning and power of street names comes not only from how they connect with specific community histories, but also how they connect with other commemorative narratives and landscapes. Found along Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Asheville is a recreational park that also bears his name. The centerpiece of the park is a life-size statue of King leading two small children by the hand, an appropriate association given that the city markets the park as friendly to kids. At the Martin Luther King Memorial Gardens in Raleigh, a bronze statue of King overlooks a major road named for him. Next to the statue is a granite monument with flow water and inscribed with the names of civil rights notables from the local area. The case of Raleigh illustrates an instance in which a street name can lead the public to find memorials and monuments that retell the past in ways that cannot be done by commemorative naming alone. Without the memorial garden and water monument, we are left with an image of a Civil Rights Movement led strictly by a national icon, allowing us to forget its important grassroots dimensions and the role played by everyday people seeking social change.

The case of honoring King through street naming, while a valuable indicator of changes in the commemorative landscapes of North Carolina and the South, is also reflective of how these changes can be controversial. Another part of the symbolic power of street naming is its geographic connectivity. Because of the way that certain streets cut across different communities within cities, street naming has the potential to make certain visions of the past accessible to a wide range of social groups. However, it is this potential to touch and connect disparate groups—some of which may not identify with King—that also makes street naming open to debate. For many street naming proponents, it is difficult to convince the white establishment that King’s name belongs on major thoroughfares, that his legacy has relevance and resonance to everyone’s lives. Opposition from business and property owners along potentially renamed roads has led government leaders to honor King along minor streets or portions of roads confined to the black community. It is a poignant memorial to a man known for fighting against segregation. As journalist Jonathan Tilove argued in Along Martin Luther King: “To name any street for King is to invite an accounting of how the street makes good on King’s promise or mocks it.” While this practice of segregating memory is certainly evident in North Carolina, there are notable exceptions of King’s name being found on major roads, such as Chapel Hill, Charlotte, New Bern, and Wilmington.

As illustrated in the context of memorializing King, street names are important and contestable commemorative landscapes. They serve as literal and figurative signposts, helping give the public a common historical frame of reference while also getting them to work, school, shops, and back home. At the same time that street names work in subtle terms, they can also become highly charged commemorative arenas for interpreting and debating the reputations of historical figures as well as larger issues of identity and social power. Commemorative street naming represents a means of claiming symbolic ownership of places and the historical meanings associated with those places.