Street Naming: Not as Easy as You Might Think: Two Case Studies

Article excerpt

1 Facing Down a Firestorm: A Small Town in the National Spotlight

Irene Dobson had an idea. It was the summer of 2003, and the nation had just celebrated the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. She drafted a letter to the Zephyrhills, Florida, city council noting it was time for Zephyrhills to have a street named in honor of Dr. King.

The street selected was 6th Avenue, the gateway to the African-American community and one that traverses the entire city. The portion in the African-American community was in an unincorporated portion of the county, and the balance crossed the city through what is primarily a residential area.

In late October, Mrs. Dobson stood before the council and, after its approval, her dream became a reality. She had lived through Jim Crow and segregation. Now, in a city of 11,000, with a population of African Americans that totaled less than 3 percent and an all-Caucasian council, her idea was embraced and moving forward.

Although many residents--mostly white, and particularly those living along 6th Avenue--opposed the street name change and opposition to the naming appeared quickly, 6th Avenue did become Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Following initial flare-ups of opposition, life returned to normal.

That is, until municipal election qualifying took place in early 2004.

Two newcomers ran for council seats, and they organized their campaigns around the issue of renaming the street. They ran in opposition to two supporters of the street name change. One incumbent was defeated and the second survived a close election--winning by one vote. A new majority on the city council vowed to return the street to its original name.

Irene Dobson was stunned. She and other members of the African-American community, remembering the civil rights struggles from their past, now were set into motion. On the eve of her 80th birthday, Irene Dobson picked up a picket sign and, joined by neighbors and friends, marched in front of city hall.

Overnight, a small, southern town found itself in a political firestorm and in the glare of the national media spotlight.

ISSUE NOT UNIQUE TO ZEPHYRHILLS

Since the designation of a federal holiday named after the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a focal point of black American pride and recognition. Steven Tuch and others note that no one leader ever "inherited King's mantle as the pre-eminent black American leader," (1) and his persona and name are central to most commemorative efforts and to the civil rights movement in general.

Derek Alderman, associate professor, Department of Geography at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, has written that, in both small and large communities, the debate over the naming of streets in honor of King is framed around the physical geography of confining or limiting the street naming to African-American neighborhoods, as opposed to selection of a street of more significance that crosses over into Caucasian areas. (2) For many African Americans, street signs and names that are designated in only the black neighborhoods reinforce the idea that, despite all the changes and advancements, Americans as a whole still reside in segregated communities, living separate lives. Metaphorically, blacks remain in their place and whites in theirs.

The argument against renaming a major thoroughfare is often raised by Caucasian property and business owners "who cite the financial costs of changing their address and the social stigma, as they see it, of being associated with the black community," Alderman finds. (3) This division is further explained by the vastly different views held by members of both races regarding the "historical importance of the civil rights leader." Thus, the battle that ensued in Zephyrhills has been an all-too-common American phenomenon.

THE POLITICAL FIRESTORM

Caucasian residents in Zephyrhills, particularly those residing on 6th Avenue, were incensed at the street name change. …