Coffee Hour with Derek Alderman: MLK Streets as Unfinished Civil Rights Work: The Need for Counter-Storytelling in a Trump America

Friday, January 20, 2017 - 3:30pm
Refreshments are offered in 319 Walker Building at 3:30 p.m. The lecture begins in 112 Walker Building at 4:00 p.m.

MLK Drive street sign Milwaukee Steet Sign for Milwaukee's Martin Luther King Drive. Photo by Anthony Dean.

Today's Coffee Hour is co-sponsored by The Rock Ethics Institute and the Department of African American Studies.

About the talk

Over the past twenty years or so, I have researched the politics of naming America’s streets for Martin Luther King, Jr (MLK). These roadways, which represent the most widespread and contentious memorials to King, have proven to be important sites for understanding the politics that continue to surround the civil rights leader’s reputation and legacy. Although King has become an internationally recognized icon, there remains considerable debate about not only whether and how to honor him but also where—and on which street—that remembering should happen. These locational struggles speak to broader racialized fights for public space and belonging in American cities and opposition has frequently led to a social and spatial marginalization and segregation of King’s memory. I conceptualize MLK streets as not only monuments to the Civil Rights Movement but also extensions of the ongoing, unfinished struggle for civil rights—recognizing that geographies of naming and memorializing are inseparable from a consideration of the material conditions, inequalities, and legacies of violence within our society. A key factor in achieving justice on and through King’s namesakes requires making an intervention in how the public—including some activists—think and talk about these roadways in highly stigmatizing ways without losing sight of the struggles that take place on them. I suggest that scholars—particularly geographers—can play an important role in the “counter-storytelling” necessary to give voice to a black sense of place found along MLK streets, the wider histories of structural racism that have constrained the naming process and the streets themselves, and the geographies of activism, self-determination, and community identity embodied along what Jonathan Tilove calls, “America’s Black Main Street.” This counter-storytelling is essential to anti-racism, according to critical race theorists, and arguably even more necessary now in light of the President-Elect Donald Trump’s characterizations of black people and black places in dehumanizing ways—repeating a trope often found in street naming debates in America.

About the speaker

Derek Alderman Derek H. Alderman is head of the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee, where he is also the Betty Lynn Hendrickson Professor of Social Science. He currently serves as vice president of the American Association of Geographers. Alderman’s specialties include race, public memory, heritage tourism, critical place name study—all within the context of the African-American struggle for social and spatial justice. He is the author of over 110 articles, book chapters, and other essays along with the award-winning book (with Owen Dwyer), Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory. He has a forthcoming edited volume with Routledge titled The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics, and Place. Alderman is perhaps best known for advancing scholarly and public understanding of the politics of naming streets after Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years, he has provided assistance to many elected officials, public administrators, and activists from across the country about Martin Luther King streets. Alderman frequently moves beyond the academy to contribute to the national dialogue on commemorative and cultural issues. He has been interviewed or quoted over 180 times in print, radio and television media outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, CityLab, The Washington Post, USA Today, Ebony, The Guardian, BBC Radio News, and on NPR’s Morning Edition and Marketplace. He is the recipient of several regional and national awards in recognition of his scholarship, teaching, and public outreach.

Suggested readings

Contact us

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Coffee Hour