Monday, November 27, 2006

Airport to MLK: one for the books

Back during the long deliberations over the change of the name of Airport Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I found the work of cultural geographer Derek Alderman, who has made a scholarly specialty out of studying MLK road name changes, useful in putting the request into a larger context. Latest on his list of publications now is an essay (.pdf) in the collection Landscape and Race in the United States, edited by Richard Schein. In the essay, "Naming Streets for Martin Luther King Jr.: No Easy Road," he discusses the Chapel Hill process:

In representing the street-naming issue as divisive, some whites have suggested that King--because of his legacy as a peacemaker--would not have wanted his commemoration characterized by racial conflict. For example, street-naming opponents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, argued this point when they called on black leaders to rename a park, library, or school for King rather than the controversial Airport Road. Black supporters such as Michele Laws countered with King's own words: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." These attempts by some whites to represent the civil rights leader's image as nonconfrontational is, according to Michael Eric Dyson, part of a larger national amnesia about King's true legacy. According to Dyson, most of America chooses to remember King as the "moral guardian of racial harmony" rather than as a radical challenger of the racial and economic order. In this respect, the politics of street naming are not just about black Americans establishing the legitimacy and resonancy of King's achievements but also about wrestling away control of his historical legacy from conservative whites, who have appropriated his image to maintain the status quo rather than redefine it.

Later in discussing specifically why the King commemoration has come to focus on roads, and not, say, libraries or parks or schools, Alderman quotes yours truly:

Under Jim Crow laws, blacks had a hard time just making a road trip. They had to pack their own food, even their own toilet paper, for they didn't know if they would find a restaurant that would serve them or even a gas station where they could use the bathroom. . . . Mobility, the freedom to travel the public roads without fear and with assurance that you got what you needed--these were the basic goals for King. Thus I can't think of a better way to honor Dr. King than with a road naming.

It's been a year and a half since we dedicated our own Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It's going to be longer than that before we see his values thoroughly reflected in Chapel Hill. But it was a significant step with more than token meaning.

Speaking of King, the sixth volume of his collected papers will be out this spring. Writes Ralph Luker, "This volume is of special interest because it includes material – many sermons and speeches, some letters -- that Coretta Scott King long delayed making available to the King Project. It is a large part of what was recently purchased for $32 million by an Atlanta trust. . . . Until now, much of the material in this volume has never been closely read by King scholars."

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