Can a name become a metaphor for civil rights?

2 people holding hands and walking toward building (© David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
A father walks his child to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 28, 2021. (© David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

People in the United States honor the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. each year on the third Monday of January, a federal holiday that falls close to or on the anniversary of his birth on January 15, 1929.

They also remember King by naming places and events for him. The federal holiday established King firmly as a historical icon, says Derek Alderman, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee. Community groups, schools and other institutions began to use his name because his image and legacy “resonate with the American public.” The name, Alderman says, “can become, in effect, a shorthand, a metaphor for talking about larger issues of civil rights.”

Martin Luther King Jr. waving to crowd near Washington Monument (© AP Images)
King greets the crowd in Washington August 28, 1963, the day he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. (© AP Images)

A nation remembers

A propensity to name places for King occurred after his assassination in 1968, said Benjamin Talton, a history professor at Howard University.

The place names are a symbolic way of holding onto the man and his vision for America, said Joshua Inwood, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University. For the civil rights movement, there was “some real question about ‘OK, what’s the next step?'” Inwood says, noting that placing King’s name in the landscape — on concrete, street signs or a library, for example — has helped to fix him in the national consciousness.

Alderman estimates that there are thousands of things named after King in the U.S. Besides local street signs and libraries, there are Martin Luther King Jr. schools, parks and trails, monuments, scholarships, bridges, restaurants, highways, food drives, swimming pools, institutes and sports teams.

Child sitting next to image of Martin Luther King Jr. (© Wilfredo Lee/AP Images)
A child gazes at the crowd as he rides on a float on during a 2005 Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Miami. (© Wilfredo Lee/AP Images)

Not all of them are in places King visited or that can boast some other personal connection to King, but that’s beside the point. “It’s a statement of how broad and encompassing and inclusive some of his teachings are and their resonance to a larger nation,” Alderman says. “We have so many counties and streets and even cities named for George Washington. We have places named for Lincoln. Those figures never visited every one of those places, but they created a national framework of memory that has served to unite some of those communities underneath that remembrance.”

What King symbolizes

Vehicular traffic on road going through wooded area (© Charlie Riedel/AP Images)
In 2021, the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation in Missouri renamed this 5-mile parkway after King. (© Charlie Riedel/AP Images)

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by King and other civil rights leaders, propelled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed practices that had denied Blacks’ right to vote.

While public discourse on King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, tends to focus on his leadership in the nonviolent struggle for racial equality, he should also be remembered for his work on labor rights and economic justice, Alderman says. “You cannot think about civil rights and struggles for equality in America without uttering that name,” he says of King. But all of the place names should prompt visitors to ask, “do we have a true, full understanding of who King was and [all of] what he symbolized?”