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New book by ECU geographer examines Civil Rights memorials

GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Dec. 17, 2008)   —   A new book co-authored by an East Carolina University geographer looks at how America remembers Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement in public places.

In “Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory,” Derek Alderman, associate professor of geography at ECU, and Owen Dwyer of Indiana University, carry out the first critical examination of the monuments, museums, parks and streets dedicated to the African-American struggle for civil rights.

“There is a power to monuments and memorials that often doesn’t get recognized,” said Alderman, a nationally known expert on the politics of naming streets and other public places after Martin Luther King Jr.

“By putting a memorial on the landscape, it creates not just a visual record of what went on, but plays a powerful role in shaping the views of present and future generations,” he said.

The book discusses memorials that commemorate people, places and moments from the movement, including the lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where sit-in protests were held, the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala., where police attacked peaceful protesters and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated.

Dwyer and Alderman found that social and geographic marginalization often accompanies the creation of civil rights memorials.

When communities disagree about how and where to remember the movement, it calls attention to the still unfinished nature of the struggle for racial equality and social justice, Alderman said. “While these monuments celebrate the victory of the Civil Rights movement, they also signify the limitations of that victory,” he said.

The researchers also found that memorials often recognize national, male leaders of the movement, while omitting local-level activists and women involved in the struggle.

“Certain stories are told, and certain stories are forgotten,” Alderman said. “Historians know the Civil Rights movement is better conceptualized as something that happened nationally while being driven at a local level by grassroots organizations and people who, if we don’t pay attention to how they are remembered now, will be forgotten forever.”

With a timely topic, as America welcomes its first African-American president to office and celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the book encourages readers to critique the version of the movement presented by public places.

“The last chapter pushes readers to begin analyzing the landscape themselves. We don’t want readers to passively accept what they see. We want the reader to critique and question it,” Alderman said.

The book is published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago and distributed by the University of Georgia Press.

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Contact: Derek Alderman | 252-328-4013