UT professor of geography Derek Alderman decided to focus on a different aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
Alderman’s areas of research center on race relations, public memory and heritage tourism in the South, with much of his work focusing on “the rights of African Americans to claim the power to commemorate the past and shape cultural landscapes as part of a broader goal of social and spatial justice,” according to Alderman’s page.
Over the course of 20 years, Alderman has researched the growing number of streets named after King and made note of them, periodically mapping the location of each street. The map has been provided to museums, activists, local government and the public.
Ron Kalafsky, head of the Department of Geography, said Alderman’s work has redefined geography by drawing from many areas of research.
“His work shows how geography is an integrative discipline,” Kalafsky said. “In this case, Alderman’s research ties together the geographies of history, politics and transportation, in order to address an important issue in many cities and towns.”
Alderman said his interest in the project began when he was attending graduate school at the University of Georgia.
“I was riding along a road out in a very rural part of Georgia and saw a street sign for Dr. King and thought, ‘That’s pretty amazing,’” Alderman said. “It was still a part of Georgia heavily steeped in the Confederacy, heavily steeped in Civil War, and you saw and heard very little of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Alderman went on to say that the multiple street signs showed him how America had changed the way it remembered history.
“I thought seeing a street for Dr. King signaled the changes that were happening in the way America remembers its past — specifically, the extent (to) which it’s willing to recognize the achievement of African Americans,” Alderman said.
Streets named after King can be found across the continental U.S., but the South has the highest recorded number of streets named after the civil rights activist.
Despite this fact, Alderman noted that public acknowledgment of King and other African Americans remains a controversial topic.
“For much of this country’s history and for much of this region’s history, we celebrated a vision of history that really ignores the contributions and struggles and achievements of people of color,” Alderman said.
“This project recognizes the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King, but it also takes place in the larger context of reclaiming space and reclaiming symbols and reclaiming history in a way that says there is more than one way of recognizing the South’s history.”
Knoxville itself already has a street named Martin Luther King Avenue, but Alderman hopes to see the number of streets that acknowledge the accomplishments of people of color grow.
Alderman said that the same characters see the spotlight time and time again. As communities become more diverse, the surrounding geography and public spaces need to reflect those changes.
“There is a very clear disconnect between the diversity in our society and the way our cities look,” Alderman said. “Until we close that gap between what our symbols say and who they symbolize, we are going to have some injustices that we have to come to terms with.