Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman. Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory. Chicago: The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2008. 144 Pages.  1-930066-83-x.  Reviewed by Katie Oxx, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory is a terrific book. Co-authors Dwyer and Aldermen adeptly situate their work at the intersection of literature in cultural geography, collective memory, heritage tourism, and the politics and economics of preservationist and commemoration debates. The text is refreshingly accessible given such breadth and potential complexity, but that is not to say it lacks academic bona fides. Both geographers, Dwyer and Alderman look at how the civil rights movement is “written on and through” the landscape (22). The authors are driven by their admiration for the civil rights movement, a need to understand commemorations and examine the “politics of producing” public memorials, and to explore what is remembered and what is forgotten. Their final aim is to produce a guide for others doing cultural geography (vii).  The central claim of Dwyer and Alderman is that “civil rights memorials simultaneously challenge and confirm the conventions that characterize commemoration in America.”  Further, looking at how it has been etched in the cultural landscape, they believe, “...offers insights into its victories and shortcomings” (7).

Following the introduction, which defines terms such as cultural geography and sketches what readers should expect from the text, seventy eight memorial sites are presented in a “Gallery” section. The sites are located throughout the south and vary widely. Some are vernacular architecture, like Medgar Evers’s home in Mississippi, a bowling alley in South Carolina where three college students were shot, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Others are formal, commissioned sites, such as the Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, Georgia and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Most powerful were the comparisons of Martin Luther King-named streets and sites, many of which are terribly dilapidated and in one instance, entirely abandoned. These allowed Dwyer and Alderman to unpack their claims about the contentious nature of the commemorative sites as well as to discuss the racialized politics of heritage tourism and southern history generally. I also found the images from Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama striking, and they afforded the authors the opportunity to discuss aesthetic aspects of the sites. The once-segregated four acre park contains statues, memorials, and a “Freedom Walk.” Statuaries of ferocious bronze dogs and pointed water canons intrude at points along the path. They violate the personal space of the strolling visitor, reminding all comers of the vicious physical assault on protesters, including children, by police. 

"It also presents the persuasive argument that the reason most civil rights memorials are located in the south is because the end of Jim Crow can be (mistakenly) conflated in southen culture with the end of discrimination."  


Three succinct chapters follow. The first, “Stories Told, Stories Silenced” examines the “mainstreaming” of the civil rights narrative and the process of packaging and commodifying civil rights into heritage tourism.  Chapter Two, “Civil Rights Memorials: How Did They Come To Be?” explores the political and economic challenges faced by various advocacy groups. The final chapter, “Civil Rights Memorials: An Uneven Geography” considers the neighborhoods the memorials are located in and how those who come to the sites rarely spend time or money in the places they are located.  It also presents the persuasive argument that the reason most civil right memorials are located in the south is because the end of Jim Crow can be (mistakenly) conflated in southern culture with the end of discrimination. The north, by contrast, has no watershed moment, no court case around which to pivot a “before-and-after” narrative of legal discrimination and thus, cannot construct such a tidy account.

One fascinating aspect of this study is a comparison of the tourism strategies employed by different states, an extension, really, of the larger question of how race, memory, and economics commingle in the production of commemorative spaces.  In particular, the authors suggest Alabama’s co-opting of history as “heritage” reflects first their economic needs, but also to some extent their readiness to confront that history. Mississippi on the other hand, is “unwilling to capitalize” (image 69) because, as the authors point out, they know that civil rights have not been won for many of their citizens.  

"The authors more than fulfill their goal to use civil rights memorials as a methodological exercise in doing cultural geography."  


The greatest strength of Civil Rights Memorials is heuristic. The authors more than fulfill their goal to use civil rights memorials as a methodological exercise in doing cultural geography.  They also include sections at the end of the text containing suggested reading and other materials, as well as a checklist for students in the field. Dwyer and Alderman draw heavily throughout the text on other seminal scholars in the field - notably, Kenneth Foote and Dell Upton - creating for the reader a certain comradeship with these scholars and their ideas, which adds significantly to the value and accessibility of the book for students and non-specialists.

Most readers of the Journal of Southern Religion will wish for analysis of the particular sites and the geography of memory that acknowledges religion as a central component however. Indeed, of the seventy eight sites included in the “Gallery” section, over a third of them were religious. The authors do comment on the role of churches in the process of naming streets after Martin Luther King, and the fact that churches “are one of the non-residential establishments most frequently found on King Streets” (51). But that is all the reader will find in the text that explicitly mentions religion. 

Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory is ideal for introductory courses in cultural geography as well as all courses on the civil rights movement. Those that explore, in particular, racialized aspects of the collective memory of the movement and the production of that narrative will find it rich in case studies. It is also appropriate for all scholars of the civil rights movement (though specialists will note its protracted temporal and geographic bent on the era). General readers too, will gain much from its lucid analysis.


Katie Oxx
Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology
Saint Joseph's University

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