Street Naming Is More Than a Performative Gesture

I’ve spent the past four years researching street names and what they reflect about communities. I understand that merely changing a street’s name might be seen as “performative,” another show without substance. But performative can also refer to words that, as the philosopher J. L. Austin theorized, don’t just speak but act. (Try arguing that the words I do, said before your beloved and a judge, don’t actually do anything.) Here, the naming is the doing. And although changing street names alone cannot alter societal norms, it captures the momentum of the BLM movement in a concrete way.

Cities often rededicate streets to reflect changing values. But the rise of streets named for BLM has been swift compared with other efforts to rename spaces in honor of Black people. One of the most striking examples is the growing number of Martin Luther King Jr. Streets—perhaps the original Black Lives Matter Plazas—that have sprung up over the past half century. Today, more than 900 streets are named after King across America. And although many communities have welcomed the creation of BLM spaces, nothing demonstrates the real impact and importance of renaming public spaces more vividly than the fierce, persistent resistance to MLK streets.

In 2003, Irene Dobson, a retired kindergarten teacher living in Zephyrhills, Florida, asked the city council to rename a central street after MLK. It was close to the 40th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and she thought the town, which was founded as a retirement community for Union Army veterans, should honor him.

Dobson, who is African American, lived in a part of town called Otis Moody—named after the only local real-estate developer who would sell property to Black people in the 1950s. Her son had been one of the first to enroll in integrated schools. (“I raised eight children and none of those children are named ‘Scared!’” her mother used to tell her.) The city council agreed to Dobson’s proposal, and signs for the new street began to go up.

But, as the historian Dylan Gottlieb has chronicled, residents fought to recall the decision. Some argued that having an MLK Street was bad for business. Others groused about the cost of changing identification and letterheads, even after the city council offered to send affected residents $50 to defray the costs. One resident grumbled that he did “not want the fifty bucks … I want my street name to stay Sixth Avenue.” Few were as honest as the Zephyrhills old-timer who said, “If I wanted to live in an integrated neighborhood I would have … I don’t think I’m being unreasonable wanting to live among whites.” The city council reneged, and Sixth Avenue remained Sixth Avenue.

Zephyrhills is far from alone in rejecting King’s name. Residents in San Diego and Portland once also opposed King streets, in racist shows of anger. Many Martin Luther King Streets that remain are located in Black neighborhoods, and some cities have hidden theirs away, far from city centers. In Eatonton, Georgia, for example, activists pushing for a new MLK Street in 1990 argued that, given King’s message of integration, his name should be placed on an integrated street. Instead, it was placed in a Black neighborhood lined with houses, as one resident put it, “fairly decent by black standards.” In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a developer argued against naming West Ninth Street after King, saying that it “is no longer a solid black street … It is no longer a residential street or rundown business street. It is a top class business street that can play a great part in the future of Chattanooga.”