America’s Renaming Moment

The United States is amid a renaming moment as part of a wider global reckoning with public memorials, symbols, and names. Names affixed to a wide range of streets, university buildings, military bases, consumer products, sports teams, and even non-human species are being challenged and even changed because of their association with and valorization of racism, settler colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy (Frank, 2020; Chambers, 2021; Cohen, 2022; Watson, 2023). Meanwhile, there is growing pressure to address how the nation’s traditions of naming have worked to erase indigenous ties to the land and neglect contributions of people of color, women, and queer communities (Griffin, 2017; Grantham-Philips, 2022; Los Angeles City News Service, 2022). African American social actors and groups are major leaders in these campaigns to change names and naming practices, what we call ‘onomastic activism.’ Fueled in part by the Black Lives Matter Movement and older traditions of commemorative reform, this Black naming activism challenges nomenclature that perpetuates racist stereotypes, honors white supremacist historical figures and causes, and makes invisible the trauma of racialized oppression. This activism also pushes for new naming practices that publicly recognize Black agency, including historical figures and struggles. This is part of the symbolic and material reparations of addressing generations of exclusion from official narratives, civic spaces, and systems of local-national memory (Brasher et al., 2017).

Considerable debate surrounds America’s renaming moment, which has attracted support, co-option, and intense resistance from governmental authorities and the wider public. Conservative opponents argue that it represents too much change or merely a woke erasure or canceling of culture and heritage. These opponents tend to stoke public resentment about where these campaigns will stop in rewriting the nation’s landscape of names (e.g., Associated Press, 2021). Progressive critics dismiss ongoing name changes as performative gestures that do little to change material realities of oppressed groups (e.g., Tichavakunda, 2021). Indeed, some elected officials, university officials, and corporations appropriate renaming as part of advancing a ‘neoliberal multicultural agenda’ to curtail further controversy (McFarland et al., 2019). These officials appear more committed to maintaining the socio-economic order and avoiding difficult conversations than substantively addressing past and ongoing wounds of discrimination and challenging the oppressive structures underpinning that order (Brasher, 2023).

Yet, some advocates argue passionately that renaming is not a mere exercise in political correctness but challenges the atmospheres and structures of inequality (Ferguson, 2019). They view their activism from a social justice perspective and argue that names have an affective capacity, evoking larger messages and feelings about who matters (or not) in society. Some Black onomastic activists see name reform as a means of raising awareness and stimulating (rather than ending) difficult conversations about racism (e.g., Swann, 2020). As Akbari (2023) found in studying the “Take Em Down” movement in New Orleans, some activists plan and accompany renaming petitions and proposals with demands for greater material equity and social justice.

The wholesale dismissal of name reform as a superficial exercise too easily dismisses how members of historically marginalized groups, especially Black communities, can and do view naming practices as important to their lived experiences, identity struggles, and political-emotional wellbeing. Notwithstanding the disparate views that surround the issue, struggles over American naming are part of the work of expanding civic imagination; enacting a new kind of political agency among disenfranchised groups who envision alternatives to how the nation is symbolized, experienced, and realized (D’Ignazio, 2017). Stated directly, names play a significant role in the physical and ideological operation of the nation. Ongoing (re)naming conflicts are part of the “political grammar” of deciding and debating which words and associated memories are used to identify the United States and who matters culturally or is recognized as a citizen (Wilce, 2012). These debates strike at the heart of how the United States comes to terms with changing demographics as well as the political aspirations of those groups and peoples long denied a place at the naming table.

To fully make sense of this renaming moment, it is important to take what Romano (2023) calls the “longer view” of struggles over historical justice and public symbols including the struggle over naming. While recent events seem (and are represented by some opponents) as radically new and unprecedented, the reality is that naming practices have long served as arenas for grappling with questions of race and racism and there is a tradition of Black communities exercising onomastic agency—making active interventions in interpreting and redefining their political relationship with naming—that remains under-analyzed. The challenge facing many members of the American public and scholars is to develop a deeper understanding of the role of naming and renaming within the history of USA race relations and recover and learn from past moments when Black communities strategically reworked the place of names in their lives in the face of white supremacy.

To fill this need, we outline an approach that takes a longer, historically view of Black naming activism by drawing together ideas from the field of Black geographies and our work in critical place naming studies. Our paper illustrates relationships between naming and a history of “Black livingness,” the process of asserting Black humanity, creating present and future Black worlds, and narrating Black stories in the face of oppression (McKittrick, 2021). We then offer a glimpse into the seldom investigated role of naming as tactical, freedom-making practices in the Civil Rights Movement. Specifically, we examine how workers in the 1960s organization SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) deployed a (re)naming of places, people, and initiatives as tools in their mobilization (gathering antiracist intelligence, organizing a subaltern transportation system, and carrying out revolutionary place-making).

Retelling this political onomastic history develops a fuller genealogy of ongoing renaming struggles in America and more firmly locates naming practices within the lives, struggles, and stories of Black communities in the United States. It also tells a story of the Civil Rights Movement that is not well understood. While attention often focuses on large protests and marches or singular figures like Martin Luther King, the broader struggle over the landscape and whose names count is a window to understand the vital role naming struggles play in rewriting, retelling, and reworking the broader racialized landscape within the USA. This has implications not only for how we understand civil rights in the US, but also holds intellectual purchase in broader struggles over how we come to terms with the freedom dreams of a myriad of peoples long denied the agency to engage in name-making infused with their culture, history, and presence. As a result, we not only seek to add a needed chapter to our understanding of onomastic activism and race but use SNCC’s creative name-work to unlock broader understandings of the selective way that the Civil Rights Movement and what (and who) counts in that Movement beyond what has come to be canonized within popular media and education (Rodríguez and Vickery, 2020).

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to address our use of terminology in the paper. Our invoking of the word onomastic throughout this paper signals an important move away from onomastics simply defined as the study of names and naming by scholars. Rather, our use of onomastics captures how everyday communities—especially oppressed Black communities--engage in producing their own actionable political-intellectual knowledge about the origin, meaning, and impact of discriminatory names and the social difference that more inclusive, emancipatory naming practices can have in their lives, wellbeing, and struggles for self-determination. Such grassroots onomastic knowledge and action can and should directly inform academic views of the place of naming in social life. We use onomastics and naming interchangeably, inspired in part by Alia (2007), who defines “political onomastics” in broad terms as the “politics of naming.”

We follow Wright’s (2019, 172) assertion that “the public is intellectual.” Indeed, our theorizing in this paper is heavily shaped by social actors and groups within historically marginalized communities, whose onomastic work constitutes its own lived social theory. And by locating onomastics within the social struggles and organic intellectualism of ordinary people and not just the perspectives and findings of scientists, we offer what some readers may see as a unconventional but evocative terminology. The terms onomastic activism, onomastic reform, and onomastic practices refer to those community-based efforts to challenge and change unjust name-identity formations and reshape the place of underrepresented groups in the narratives embedded in names. The terms onomastic agency, onomastic decisions, and onomastic tactics refer to historically oppressed communities asserting control over the naming process, public understandings of how names affect them, and the transformation of (re)naming as a tool of advocacy in their broader struggles for freedom and equality. Although our discussion here focuses on Black civil rights-related naming traditions, onomastic activism is not restricted to progressive, subaltern social movements, as recently illustrated in May 2024 when a Virginia school board voted to restore the names of Confederate military figures to two schools and thus reverse name change reform following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests (Cabral, 2024).

The Longer View of a Black Politics of Naming

Informing our approach in this paper is our participation in critical place naming studies or critical toponymies (Berg and Vuolteenaho, 2009) and the growing interdisciplinary field of Black geographies (Hawthorne, 2019). One of the foundational pillars of critical toponymies is recognition that the social practice of naming functions as a political technology of power, a means of ordering and controlling but also contesting patterns of identity and the opportunities, resources, and rights that accompany those formations of identity and power. This approach focuses on not only social elites and economic developers and governmental actors appropriating and shaping the place naming process names but also historically marginalized or discriminated groups engaging in toponymic practices as part of the struggle for greater equality—even as they do so in the face of injustices. A politics of naming exists as marginalized groups use direct political action as well as everyday performances and practices not only to challenge established exclusionary place naming regimes but also to enact more inclusive namescapes and hence greater public recognition and representation (Rose-Redwood et al., 2018).

Critical place naming study benefits from a diversity of methods—from quantitative treatments of naming patterns to qualitative analysis of public reaction to name changes (e.g., Madden, 2018; Rusu, 2019). The methodological orientation we undertake in this paper builds upon cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s (1973) notion of “thick description,” an interpretative form of analysis that moves beyond categorization and the sheer observation of behavior to stress the deep social and spatial context at work behind people’s actions, feelings, and expressions. Our approach unpacks specific naming struggles in terms of the worldviews, power relations, and lived realities enacted through the act of naming. Our thick description uses multiple moments from a range of historical eras and geographic sites to elucidate the complex webs of meaning that surround what Alia (2007) would call the “political onomastics” of Black life. As white scholars, our ability to understand and relate directly to those racialized naming struggles is always limited. Yet, undergirding our approach to name study is an anti-racist ethics and a solidarity with oppressed communities of color as they seek to claim the power to determine how, when, and where their identities, histories, and names are represented and performed.

We believe that effective thick description depends upon rigorous historicizing of names and naming practices. The ongoing American renaming moment has resulted in part from a continuation and amplification of a history of Black onomastic practice. Black communities have long recognized that the naming of places, people, and institutions on their own terms is part of anti-racist strategies central to Black place-making. Naming is key to the identity-work of all groups, but especially so for African Americans whose nomenclatures are often imposed by a white power structure—such as the assigning of personal names by enslavers (Laversuch, 2006), the violent use of the N-word throughout USA history, the weaponizing of school names as part of mass white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., attaching names of Confederate generals to schools in resistance of de-segregation), and the more recent taking over and renaming/rebranding of low income neighborhoods by gentrifiers (Madden, 2018). Activist calls to reallocate the power to name oneself and one’s communities and locations is partially about carving out spaces of Black being and belonging that challenge these discriminatory onomastic legacies and enact naming practices that materialize and give authority to the lived experiences, knowledge systems, and hopes of Black people as well as part of broader political consciousness raising within the community.

This emphasis on the agency and resilience of Black communities in identity construction, as well as creating narratives and places is a key tenet within the Black geographies approach. This approach situates racism and antiracist resistance within a richer conception of the role of struggle, humanity, and creativity within Black life—what Katherine McKittrick (2021) calls “Black livingness.” This livingness is a method for knowing and representing Black life that recognizes Black agency and humanity through the world-defining stories that Black people tell about themselves—stories of not just pain but also joy. Because naming is a form of storytelling, we see Black name-making as one way of asserting a livingness that is also working towards liberation. Thus, Black political onomastics pay attention to how oppressed communities deploy naming practices and politics—both in highly public but also private and even clandestine ways—to carve out spaces of freedom and self-determination, affirm Black humanity in a society that denies it, and achieve objectives important to an antiracist political praxis.

A key feature of antiracist praxis is the introduction of forms of counter-storytelling that challenge dominant, exclusionary cultural narratives and magnify the lived experiences and knowledge-making of communities of color (Solórzano and Yosso, 2002). Thus, Black challenges to American naming are about making symbolic and material room for systems of counter-stories that affirm Black livingness. Crucial to doing justice to Black livingness and bringing deserved legitimacy to Black counter-storytelling and name-making, is recognizing that these practices are far from being a recent development and have always been part of American life. There is a wide history and geography of Black communities appropriating, contesting, and rewriting the power to name as they sought to live with, separate from, and in opposition to white supremacy (e.g., Lyons and Davis, 2017). As geographers, we are interested in how a self-determined Black onomastic politics intersects with toponymy and we have traced historically and spatially varying place (re)naming chapters in the long African American Freedom Struggle (e.g., Alderman and Inwood, 2013). These expressions of Black livingness through toponymic practice provide valuable context that responds to the nation’s ongoing renaming moment.

Some chapters in Black place naming are about mobilizing opposition to prevailing naming regimes and creating more just patterns of identification. For example, Indianapolis, Indiana’s African American community successfully protested in the 1920s a ruling by a white school board to attach the name of Thomas Jefferson to a newly built, segregated all-Black high school (Warren, 2013). Offering an argument often repeated in today’s renaming struggles, opponents noted the offensiveness of so many children of color attending a school honoring an enslaver. Protests led to the school being named instead for Crispus Attucks, a sailor of mixed African and indigenous ancestry killed in the Boston Massacre and popularly memorialized as the first casualty of the US Revolutionary War. Importantly, Crispus Attucks High School opened at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s popularity in Indiana and the Attucks name—more than a mere memorial—became a site of Black pride in the city and an identifier for generations of high achieving students, teachers, and alumni who fought for civil rights and later racial integration of schools. Attucks High, which still operates today, is so iconic that it has its own museum that retells the history of the school and African American contributions, suggesting how Black-led onomastic decisions—critical appraisals about the impact and fairness of naming practices—can serve as the basis of a wider building of community and institutional presence within a context that denies Black agency and achievement.

Over four decades after the struggle in Indianapolis we see the emergence of one of the most widespread and contested examples of Black efforts to take charge of commemorative toponyms with calls to rename city streets for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr (MLK). Since his assassination in Memphis in 1968, almost 1000 US cities and towns have re-identified roadways in King’s honor. Street naming proposals—most coming from local chapters of the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and various other Black-led community initiatives—have placed immense value in memorializing King as a metonym of the successes and sacrifices of the Movement. But street renaming is also pursued as part of a wider creative strategy of educating the broader (white) community about the contributions of all African Americans and exerting a greater power over public spaces and redefining who has a right to those spaces. Many activists also viewed naming roads for King as a litmus test of how far society had progressed in achieving racial equality and integration—especially since many propose renaming highly visible, major thoroughfares that cut across major racial and economic boundaries. Locating King’s namesakes in these prominent places has proven difficult for many Black renaming and memory activists because of intense white opposition. This has led often to the segregating of the civil rights leader’s namesakes to poorer, largely African American neighborhoods. Nonetheless, King’s name on these marginalized avenues often serves as a platform for Black activism and heritage identity, resourceful entrepreneurs, educational programs, community redevelopment, and mutual aid (Alderman and Inwood, 2013).

Even in the face of continued inequality, such as in the case of MLK streets, Black name-making is historically inseparable from the wider project of Black place-making and struggles to address Black wellbeing. Consider the long history of African Americans naming and building settlements intentionally to serve as safe havens from structural racism and as places for ensuring the survival and thriving of Black communities that often exists away from white control. These include maroon communities in the Carolinas, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia that circumvented and subverted enslavement as well as all-Black (un)incorporated towns arising to exercise emancipation right after the Civil War and later to avoid the virulent racism of the Jim Crow era (Nick, 2020; Purifoy, 2023). As of late, public interest has focused on Africatown, an intentional post-bellum Black community north of Mobile, Alabama settled in 1866 by the survivors of Clotilda, the last documented (and illegal) slave ship to reach the United States. The town’s name represents the longing that formerly enslaved peoples had for Africa. The children of those enslaved on the Clotilda maintained this attachment, having both an American and a West African name, knowing about the geography of their parents’ homelands, and in some instances speaking their indigenous languages (Diouf, 2007).

Within larger cities, self-determined naming practices contributed to creating what Inwood (2011) calls “Black counter-public spaces,” where African Americans claimed places reserved for them through segregation and dispossession and transformed those sites into locations where Black identities, cultural traditions, and political debate could flourish separate from and in opposition to the white-dominated public sphere. The now famous Jim Crow era travel guide The Green Book, which listed businesses willing to serve motorists of color, is an archive of those counter public spaces—from Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Avenue and Chattanooga’s Big Nine (Ninth Street) to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and Denver’s Five Points area. Within these and many other counter public spaces found in the Green Book, Black entrepreneurs inscribed a resistant livingness and memory into the names of their establishments—from references to historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Washington Carver, and Paul Dunbar to the widespread use of the Harlem moniker well outside of New York City.

Today’s proponents from historically marginalized groups who engage in name reform do not do so in vacuum. Whether they are fully cognizant of it or not, their efforts are part of a wider tradition of Black naming activism and onomastic tactics. That activism refers both to formal Black protests against/for certain name-power-identity formations as well as how naming participates in everyday world-making and the creating of Black places of autonomy, community, and resistant living. We can benefit from interpreting African American naming practices—both in the past and now—in terms of a Black livingness and the role of naming and renaming in the wider process of freedom-making. To explore this more concretely, we offer in the next section examples of the onomastic practices that undergirded the labor of civil rights activism in SNCC. Importantly, as our discussion illustrates, renaming alone cannot count as liberation. Rather, Drawing from recent work on place naming as an assemblage (Wideman and Masuda, 2018), we contend that the efficacy of naming as a civil rights practice in SNCC (and more broadly for that matter) comes from the assembling and mobilizing of names with the broader capacities of people, material places, and political practices and discourses.

The Onomastic Tactics of SNCC

While images of the American Civil Rights Movement are firmly established in the public’s mind, they are images of charismatic national leaders, top-down organizations, highly spectacular protest events, and transformative court cases and congressional acts. Receiving less attention are the grassroots campaigns and workers that also constituted the Movement and the sophisticated work and strategic planning of everyday activism within Black communities (Menkart et al., 2004). SNCC articulated and conducted a youth-driven, bottom-up approach to mobilizing poor, rural Black communities in the Deep South (e.g., Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi) against white supremacy that departs markedly from the conventional memory of the Movement. Throughout the 1960s SNCC was at the forefront of civil rights activism—from its early involvement in student sit-ins and freedom rides to Freedom Summer and leading campaigns for voting rights, desegregation, emancipatory education, and economic justice (Zinn, 2002). Founded in 1960, the organization was heavily influenced by the political philosophy of its founder and advisor Ella Baker, who stressed that the backbone of the politics of resistance laid in participatory democracy, community building, and tailoring movements against racism to the local conditions and lived experiences of traditionally oppressed communities (Inwood and Alderman, 2020).

Important to our discussion here, SNCC’s work was not limited to challenging just a single oppressive practice, actor, or law; rather, it sought to remake places and institutions and create new ones that would respond to the struggles of poor Black southerners, build community capacity for social change, and reaffirm visions of Black history, identity, and belonging. Although not using this terminology at the time, SNCC incorporated a creative and defiant Black livingness into its plans for activism and mobilization. The organization—which stressed paid and volunteer civil rights workers learning about, living in, and collaborating with the communities of the rural Deep South—conducted this holistic work using tools that move us to think about civil rights activism beyond simply marches, boycotts, arrests, and lawsuits. Because SNCC’s political philosophy hinged on centering and knowing the lives of everyday Black people and challenging dominant narratives that denied their experiences of racism, all parts of the organization—from its direct action to its communications, data research, photography, educational programs, and use of music and the arts—constituted key activist tools. We illustrate in the next sections that naming practices that played an under-appreciated role in supporting the mobilization and community–empowerment goals of SNCC (Inwood and Alderman, 2020).

Conducting a study of the onomastic tactics of SNCC—that is, the way civil rights workers and mobilized communities valued names and the power to name and deployed naming practices as part of the symbolic and material work of political activism—is important not just to the academic study of naming but for pushing us to think beyond the aforementioned canon of civil rights popular memory. Thus, in discussing SNCC’s onomastic activism, we highlight certain resources, initiatives, people, and places that go largely unmentioned in popular national celebrations of civil rights and Black history curriculum in schools. Thinking beyond this canon is always important but especially so at this cultural and political moment as government officials and some parent groups in several states in the USA seek to limit truth-telling in classrooms and other civic spaces about the histories and legacies of white supremacy and Black resistance (Natanson, 2023).

Because examinations of naming practices within the Civil Rights Movement are limited and conventional interpretations of civil rights have traditionally neglected to consider a full range of cultural practices as activism, our work on the political onomastics of SNCC is derived from drawing together some brief but important historical traces into a common interpretative framework that stresses the role of naming within Black livingness and place-making. Our methodology of “thick description” means that researchers are “in constant dialogue with the available primary sources” as they identify the webs of significance and meaning running through culture (Balogh, 2020, 13). Our insights into SNCC naming practices resulted from research in several archival collections as part of a wider National Science Foundation-funded project. Those collections include the Freedom Summer Digital Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society, New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Tamiment Library & Wagner Labor Archives of New York University, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library and Archives in Atlanta, Georgia, and the libraries of Stanford University and University of California-Berkeley. Important to our efforts to document and explore the onomastic decisions and tactics of SNCC leaders and workers were online collections found at the SNCC Digital Gateway (, the SNCC Legacy Project (, and the Civil Rights Movement Archive (

We have identified three naming practices deployed by SNCC and discuss these in the coming sections. A limitation of our study is that it provides a starting point, rather than an exhaustive inventory, of the onomastic activism of the civil rights organization. There are more naming moments in need of acknowledgement and interpretation. Yet, as Balogh (2020, 7) reminds us, thick description “requires tolerance toward ambiguity and incompleteness because it works with the assumption that culture is endless in its complexity.” Another important limitation is difficulty in finding detailed explanations of naming practices in the archives of SNCC. Historical actors at the time placed great significance on naming decisions but the civil rights organization’s record-keeping often focused (and rightly so) on the struggle for voting rights, de-segregation of public facilities, educational empowerment, and survival against white supremacist violence. While necessarily partial, the three cases we trace below cast light on naming as a form of civil rights work, both the labor of conducting protest and the difference this activism made in society’s operation. We are interested in thickly describing and interpreting not just the names used by SNCC or merely the act of naming, but also how these instances of onomastic agency were put to work or service with other aspects of mobilization.

Tree Coded Surnames, Counter-Intelligence Gathering, and SNCC’s WATS Line

The first case illustrates how SNCC exercised a creative activism in naming as the organization sought to engage in the gathering of data and personal accounts important to documenting and communicating the dangers and inequalities of life in a white supremacist-dominated South. The struggle to smash racism required creating and exploiting a counter-intelligence, a sometimes public but often highly guarded collection of stories about incidents of violence and police harassment against civil rights activists and the oppression of Black communities. SNCC workers often recorded the specific places and times of these injustices. The intelligence gathering effort was part of SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Forman’s mandate to document everything in the event of the murder of civil rights workers and to prevent that information dying with them. This database was important not just for historical reasons but also for identifying pressure points for future direct action, providing community support, and gaining attention and solidarity from sympathetic segments of the public. In this respect, civil rights activism includes an informational and data praxis traditionally under-valued as a merely ancillary or as a supporting administrative task (Inwood and Alderman, 2020).

While SNCC had many tools for gathering and disseminating this counter-intelligence, telephones played a key role as field secretaries would call in reports from various southern communities to the main headquarters in Atlanta and those at headquarters would use the phone to reach out to the field to coordinate actions, send messages, and warn of white supremacist threats. Due to the high cost of long-distance calls to report arrests, beatings and discrimination as well as the fact that the organization’s calls were routinely blocked or tapped by local white female switchboard operators conspiring with police, White Citizens Councils, or the Ku Klux Klan—Forman set up and staffed a WATS line in 1963 as part of the lead up to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines allowed organizations to make unlimited long-distance calls for a flat monthly fee. Civil rights workers in the field used the WATS line to bypass the spying and sabotage perpetrated by local phone operators to log intelligence reports (Bay Area Veterans of Civil Rights Movement, nd).

Julian Bond and Mary King—who headed up SNCC’s Communication Department and this telephone network—devised code names to make data reporting as protected as possible while also further lowering costs of gathering antiracist intelligence and making the greatest use of the WATS phone line. Managing communication and expenses is not incidental to civil rights protest but a key part of the practicalities that make politics possible. Mary King details the onomastic tactic deployed by SNCC as they sought to think critically about names as an exploitable political resource:

Julian and I set up a list of dummy surnames, using the names of trees, so that we could re-fuse to accept incoming collect phone calls with reversed charges, only to re-dial the call on the WATS line seconds later. A collect call from John Chestnut might mean that Atlanta [SNCC headquarters] should telephone Ruleville, Mississippi; a collect call from John Maple might mean that we should get back to the Greenville office; reversed charges from John Pine might mean that Julian or I should call McComb [Mississippi]. We used this technique as long as we could until the local operators figured it out (quoted in Gitlin, 2015, np).

The creation and use of coded surnames in the context of operating an oppositional communication network casts light on the organizational sophistication and savviness that is tragically missing from popular accounts of the Movement. And the fact that this resistant form of renaming was carried out successfully under the noses of local phone operators and in defiance of white supremacist surveillance speaks to how SNCC’s onomastic tactics allowed for the amassing of more information and data than otherwise possible. The key point here is not just that the civil rights organization engaged in this temporary, subversive renaming of activist personal names, but how that onomastic practice worked within the wider assemblage of technologies, people, places, and political objectives to create a civil rights resource in the form of WATS Reports.

WATS Reports, which summarized racist incidents and antiracist protests reported by SNCC at all hours of the day, were the basis for news stories distributed to the press and Movement supporters around the country (Bay Area Veterans of Civil Rights Movement, nd). Those reports represented actionable knowledge and worked to expand “epistemic justice” by expanding what the public knew about civil rights struggles in the Deep South in a time when news outlets and government offices failed to report those struggles or misrepresented them (Inwood and Alderman, 2022). In addition, WATS daily reports proved lifesaving by quickly receiving and getting word out about mobilization centers under attack by Klan nightriders or of activists arrested by southern sheriffs (Bay Area Veterans of Civil Rights Movement, nd). Claiming control of one’s information, stories and the truth-telling about oppression has long been part of the Black livingness project (Johnson, 2024), and onomastics played a covert role in ensuring those life experiences were recorded, documented and distributed to wider audiences as part of a subaltern intelligence project central to the success of SNCC.

Sojourner Motor Fleet, Subaltern Transportation, and the Women of the Movement

Discussions of communication and information gathering in the previous section push back against the idea of reducing civil rights activism only to the public spectacle of protest. Rather, activism must also include those technologies and cultural practices that might appear pedestrian or quotidian. Transportation is another area of daily life that can make a tactical difference in antiracist struggles. While equal, non-discriminatory access to public transportation such as busses and trains and travel-related spaces and accommodations were early civil rights battlegrounds (Bay, 2021), it is also important to recognize how transportation, specifically the creation of subaltern transport systems, served as direct tools of mobilization. For example, most of us are familiar with discussions of Montgomery, Alabama, and the bus boycott of 1955–56. The refusal of the city’s Black communities to ride racially segregated public buses, a refusal that brought a USA Supreme Court ruling against segregation, marks for a larger portion of the public the formal beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, much less discussed is how activists and mobilized community members organized, operated, and maintained carpools, private taxis, and church station wagons that transported boycotting African Americans to school, work and back home and helped keep Montgomery busses empty for over a year (Robinson, 1989; Alderman et al., 2013). Transportation and the movements and mobilities that undergird it are not socially neutral but the product of social power; they have the capacity to reinforce but also challenge oppression.

Our second example of SNCC’s onomastic tactics concerns the organization’s efforts to own and operate its own transportation company, a fleet of over sixty automobiles used by civil rights workers in the field. Previously, those SNCC activists who had cars often drove their own old family cars while working to mobilize communities. Those cars proved not only mechanically unreliable but also dangerous given that a break down on the side of the road exposed activists to violence from white supremacist vigilantes including local and state police officials. SNCC’s transport company, the Sojourner Motor Fleet, was named after the prominent 19th century African American freedom fighter Sojourner Truth (SNCC Legacy Project, nd). Held in slavery from her birth in 1797 to 1826, she undertook self-emancipation. Sojourner Truth later became a widely regarded author, evangelist, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist. She practiced her own onomastic agency, abandoning her birth name of Isabella Baumfree for Sojourner Truth. Her new name spoke to what she saw as God’s mission for her, to travel the country—to sojourn—for the purposes of preaching the truth against slavery and in support women’s rights (Richman, 2016). Given the heavy emphasis that SNCC placed on promoting Black history and culture, something made widely apparent in the curriculum the organization helped develop for Mississippi Freedom Schools near the same time (Alderman et al., 2022), it is perhaps not surprising that a close association was drawn between Sojourner Truth’s consequential movements in promoting abolition and suffrage and the political importance of keeping SNCC staff mobile.

Establishing a fleet of cars for activists in 1964 and a mechanic shop by 1965 (called Sojourner Truth Garage) was about more than just logistics. Rather, the political efficacy of SNCC’s philosophy of participatory democracy required organizers to have cars that would allow them to access and adequately canvass the unpaved, back roads and long highways connecting oppressed rural communities of the Deep South. To help outrun hostile law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, some SNCC workers increased the power of cars from the Sojourner Motor Fleet and learned how to maneuver their cars at high speeds (Mendenhall et al., 2023; SNCC Legacy Project, nd). We do not have specifics on the process behind the naming of SNCC’s transportation company but believe the Sojourner Motor Fleet is instructive of a Black onomastic agency long before the current renaming moment garnered attention. Along with how SNCC sought to infuse the meaning and identity of everyday technologies and institutions with a Black consciousness, pride, and livingness this example is indicative of the centrality of naming practices to galvanizing support for the movement. The reality is that the Sojourner Motor Fleet joined a wider reclaiming of the automobile by African Americans that had begun in the early 20th century and SNCC’s named transport system signaled an attempt to transform the relationship between race and mobility in America (Alderman et al., 2019). While the car brought a certain measure of freedom and citizenship to Black people, it was also a source of anxiety and inequality given the violence and discrimination encountered on Jim Crow roads (Sorin, 2020). The Sojourner Fleet demonstrates how commemorative naming is about more than fashioning a public memory or symbol. Sojourner Truth’s name identified and participated in an antiracist mobility work in which SNCC staff carried out highly meaningful and sometimes violently contested movements for the sake of causes such as voter education and registration. The motor fleet’s name is part the wider assemblage of people and movements it marked and empowered. This under-acknowledged piece of SNCC naming heritage offers a window into more fully acknowledging that transportation and mobility practices (the where, when, and how we move) were not just the stages or subjects of protest but also an essential part of the tactics of civil rights mobilization. Onomastics was part of rather than apart from this activism.

A greater public knowledge of the Sojourner Truth Motor Fleet also created an invaluable moment to recover the role of women in the African American Freedom Struggle—not just in the 1800s but also in 1960s as the second wave of feminism took hold (Holsaert et al., 2010; Greenlee, 2024). It makes even more sense to find that SNCC invoked the name of Sojourner Truth when one notes that Black female activist Ruby Doris Smith Robinson established and shrewdly managed the car system (Fleming, 2000). Mentored by civil rights icon Ella Baker, Robinson served as the administrative secretary to SNCC Executive Secretary Jim Forman. She not only administered cars but ran many office and financial operations in the Atlanta headquarters and coordinated organizing efforts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. SNCC veterans remember her as a strong, no-nonsense leader, an experienced protester and strategist, and someone committed to the liberation of Black people. Robinson was a founding member of SNCC and participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, leading to her incarceration and abuse for 45 days in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary (Mathies, 2009). In 1966, when Forman stepped down, SNCC members elected Robinson to replace him as executive secretary, although her death due to cancer in 1967 cut her tenure tragically short.

It is quite possible that the naming of the Motor Fleet reflected the kinship that Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and other women activists in SNCC felt with the early feminist praxis of Sojourner Truth. Finding a female memorialized in this way is not necessarily surprising given that, unlike other more male-dominated civil rights organizations at the time, women played a key role in SNCC’s founding and operation. It would be incorrect to suggest that there was full gender equality in the youth-led movement or that tensions over sexual discrimination did not exist, but SNCC did commit to a less traditional and hierarchal approach to female and male collaboration (Holsaert et al., 2010). Female colleagues in SNCC saw Ruby Doris Smith Robinson as tough, fierce, and merciless. They recounted how she “forced the mostly male field secretaries to explain their expenses and their whereabouts” (Zellner, 2010, 316). This memory is more significant to claiming the name Sojourner Truth, who spoke about the intersecting experiences of racial and gender oppression felt by Black women in America and criticized how the abolitionists of her era prioritized the voting rights of Black men over women. The decision of SNCC leaders such as Robinson to rename their subversive transportation system for Sojourner Truth represented an honoring of prominent Black women freedom fighters that has not always been a common American practice, and one that remains poorly developed today. While the ongoing renaming moment seeks to challenge these racial and gender inequalities in the country’s nomenclature the reality is that there is more work to do. The example of the Sojourner Motor Fleet provokes us to consider more forcefully the role of women in civil rights struggles, and prompts us to consider how much Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and other SNCC female leaders are unnamed and unsung in popular memory- and name-making, even as they are widely known and respected among many civil rights veterans and scholars. For example, a search of national street and school name databases for the USA substantiates this inequity. In contrast to the close to one thousand streets and over one hundred schools named for Martin Luther King, one finds that some of SNCC’s most noted women leaders have a limited toponymic footprint. Just one road and four public schools are named for Ella Baker, two streets and two schools honoring Fannie Lou Hamer, and no named streets or schools for Ruby Doris Smith Robinson.

Freedom Naming, Affective Politics of Racism, and SNCC’s Radical Place-Making

The third and final case of SNCC’s onomastic tactics focuses on one of the most common practices of name changing during the Civil Rights Movement—applying the word “Freedom” to a wide range of places, institutions, organizations, and practices. These included Freedom schools (Hale, 2016), Freedom libraries (Selby, 2019), Freedom songs (Hartford, 2011), Freedom political parties (Jeffries, 2009), Freedom rides (Arsenault, 2006), Freedom farms (McCutcheon, 2019), and even a Freedom Alley in Albany, Georgia. Christened in 1961 and now memorialized with a historical marker, Albany’s Freedom Alley was a holding spot near the city jail where hundreds of arrested civil rights workers awaited booking as part the local police chief’s strategy of controlling protest by using mass arrests for even minor offenses. Associating these various locations, campaigns, and people with the name freedom was not a mere cosmetic or semantic change, but part of a more substantive transformation in meaning and identity. Monteith (2020) notes that SNCC’s naming and narrative practices were important cultural moorings or anchors for its infrapolitics of making interventions in everyday conditions of racism. As noted earlier, SNCC was heavily concerned in conducting a fundamental remaking of society and creating more empowering and equitable spaces for Black Americans in that society. The use of the word freedom signaled a revolution of social values inscribed into new and existing community institutions put in the service of the Movement. For example, the 41 Mississippi Freedom Schools which taught nearly 2500 students in the summer of 1964 represented radical sites of fugitive learning (Alderman et al., 2022). Freedom Schools not only compensated for the racially segregated and woefully underfunded public schools attended by Black young people, but they also empowered students to question and challenge the social and geographical forces behind their oppression and sought to help them to become critical and politically active citizens (Hale, 2016).

The power of identifying places, groups or initiatives in the name of freedom was not confined to conveying didactic messages about civil rights, but also included creating an atmosphere or overall tone, mood, or feel necessary for social change. To understand this, one must come to grips with how racism and antiracism operate affectively through the bodies, emotions, and souls of people (Inwood and Alderman, 2017). Racism, in addition to relying upon direct economic, spatial, and political control of Black communities, maintained itself by also creating atmospheres of fear, intimidation, and anxiety that affected negatively and often brutally the psychological and physical well-being and sense of dignity and belonging of people of color (Alderman et al., 2022). Yet, white supremacy’s hold is never absolute and is challenged by asserting the right to Black livingness. SNCC understood the wider political value of creating and mobilizing alternative atmospheres of Black defiance, hope, solidarity and self-determination and we suggest that freedom-naming played a contributing role in these affective aspects of civil rights activism. The formation of the Freedom Singers in 1962 reflected SNCC’s recognition of the power of music as a mobilization tool, both in a direct practical way and in countering the atmospheric politics of racialized oppression (Inwood and Alderman, 2017). Over a span of 9 months in 1963, Freedom Singers Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson, Rutha Harris, and Charles Neblett traveled 50,000 miles in a small Buick to perform at schools and colleges, concert halls, living rooms, jails, and political rallies in forty states (Rose, 2007). While ostensibly the job of the Freedom Singers was to raise money for SNCC and educate the public of its grassroots campaigns for civil rights, their power also came from how they deployed their name along with their musical performances and wider political objectives to raise the spirits of exhausted Black southern audiences on the front lines, to inspire audiences outside the South to take action about civil rights, and to combat the fear and uncertainty of what lay ahead in the Movement. SNCC’s freedom naming practices—when viewed as part of a larger assemblage of diverse elements constituting activism—worked to frame the affective environment in which civil rights struggles developed and were sustained.

“Freedom houses” are one of the most compelling examples of the onomastic activism of the Civil Rights Movement, but they have received scant attention in popular civil rights memory and often glossed over by scholars. These houses populated the Deep South communities in which SNCC and allied organizations such as COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) organized and worked. SNCC used the name Freedom house to refer to: (1) structures rented to house civil rights workers as well as serve as mobilization and organizational headquarters; and (2) homes of Black families in mobilized communities who opened their doors to and cared for visiting SNCC activists (Hohle, 2009). It is important to note that the designation of residential structures as Freedom houses was important in conducting civil rights activism given that SNCC activists received little pay and it was common for them to be denied motel or boarding rooms by townspeople, many of whom opposed the Movement. These opponents represented SNCC workers as outside agitators despite heavy local Black involvement and leadership. Academic and popular neglect of Freedom houses is perhaps due to the way in which we tend to remember and commemorate the public spaces, rather than the private spaces behind civil rights activism along with the fact that during the Movement pains were taken not to broadcast the location of these homes for fear of white retaliation. This was a valid fear: over the span of 10 weeks during the Freedom Summer of 1964, approximately seventy homes and community centers were bombed—including some Freedom houses—and thirty-five churches were burned in the state of Mississippi (Dawidziak, 2014).

To call a home a Freedom house was not an idle identification; rather, it marked the house as an important site in a wider geography of civil rights activism and support for the Movement. The naming took on great meaning to the local Black families who housed Black and white SNCC workers and student volunteers. Many visiting student volunteers came from northern and mid-western universities and had never visited the Deep South. They were ill-prepared for working under such dangerous conditions and to see Black communities so violently oppressed even as they defiantly claimed their creativity, dignity, and survivability. In some cases, owners of Freedom houses practiced the long-standing tradition of Black self-defense in the face of Jim Crow, even as SNCC activists devoted to non-violence lived and ate under their roofs. Some local Black hosts and SNCC staff were known to arm themselves with guns and stood guard over Freedom houses and sleeping civil rights workers against the Klan (Walmsley, 2014). There are accounts of SNCC workers receiving gunfire while inside or on the porches of Freedom houses (Monteith, 2020). At the Greenwood, Mississippi Freedom house, SNCC staff members kept a cache of rifles and shotguns and organized an armed sentry to protect against white racial terror attacks, a decision that drew considerable debate within the civil rights organization (Umoja, 2013). By paying close attention to the naming and social lives of Freedom houses, we can complicate the hegemony of non-violence within conventional civil rights memory and to recognize that this political approach co-existed with and sometimes relied upon armed self-defense (Strain, 2005).

Staying with families at Freedom houses provided SNCC workers an upfront look into the Black livingness that we have discussed in the paper. And by extension, when we as scholars revisit this practice of Freedom house-naming and this offering up of Black homes and community structures in the name and service of the Movement, it can be transformative in helping us think about how political onomastics are part of a wider process of place-making. Place-making is an always emerging symbolic and material process of redefining the relations between people and their surroundings as well as the relations between people, place and social power and resistance (Allen et al., 2019). The Civil Rights Movement was a spatial revolution at the same time as it was a social and political one, and realizing an antiracist reformation of society required a radical remaking of its places and spaces. Attaching the label of freedom to a house or other structure was not the totality of the place-making process but a critical part of it. Indeed, Freedom houses were indicative of the new kind of place that SNCC wished to create amid and in opposition to the racially segregated South. Freedom houses sometimes operated as integrated homes, where SNCC activists modeled a society in which Black and white people lived, worked, and socialized together (Monteith, 2020). Freedom houses were important contact zones not only for interracial mixing and harmony but also sometimes tensions as Black residents and civil rights workers resented white college student civil rights volunteers from elite backgrounds and vice versa (Rothschild, 1979). These tensions which arose in the rooms of Freedom houses would later become writ large across SNCC, eventually leading to the expulsion of white staff and activists from the organization as it embraced a Black power ideology. The designation and naming of homes and other structures as Freedom houses clearly served practical needs for providing activists with room and board and giving them a chance to get to know the lives of the Black communities they were serving. But the naming practice was also part of a more ambitious engineering of antiracist places—illustrating how the very establishment of homes counts as civil rights activism.

Concluding Remarks

This paper began by describing the current renaming moment that America (and much of the world) finds itself. It is an exciting but also a daunting time to be an onomastic scholar. The study of names and naming practices, while always important, can play critical role in shaping public thought and policy about ongoing calls to challenge and change long-standing offensive nomenclature and carry out new, more inclusive naming. We do not pretend that the current naming debates and struggles can be easily addressed or solved. On the one hand, the removal of names often represents a fundamental rewriting of identity and memory that can draw intense public opposition from conservatives as well as resistance from some political progressives, who fear prioritizing symbolic issues for addressing deeper social change. No doubt, those in power have appropriated and co-opted the current renaming moment as a form of appeasement, tokenism, and public relations work. On the other hand, as we have suggested in this paper, it is important to listen to, learn from and be responsive to those historically oppressed communities most impacted by harmful and dispossessing naming patterns and who have often led protests for reform beyond the name-washing campaigns of universities, corporations, and governments. Exactly how do minoritized groups see resistant onomastic practices as important to their struggles for rights and recognition? And how are their current protests to remove and replace names part of a broader history and geography of naming activism that is going under-appreciated in the academy, media accounts, and policy meetings?

These very questions led us to write this piece and to share our ideas—informed by critical toponymies and Black geographies—about the need to center and better understand the history of Black naming agency and activism as part of the process of Black livingness in America. We sought to situate onomastics more firmly within the story of how Black communities have creatively navigated and made places in a hostile world while also affirming the dignity and legitimacy of their identities, memories, and aspirations. We have pulled illustrations across time and space but have given special focus to Black onomastic practices and politics during SNCC’s community-based organizing during the Civil Rights Movement. In doing so, we illustrate the tactical, political efficacy of naming to the Movement while also using those recovered naming chapters to consider people, places, and practices often missing from the canon of civil rights memory, curriculum, and celebration in the USA. Such discussions are not just key to being historically complete; rather, we believe that placing limits on how we remember what counts as civil rights activism in the past can in turn place clear constraints on what we see as possible in terms of defining and realizing activism in the present and future.

A Policy Epilogue

More fully knowing the history of Black onomastic activism and the ways in which SNCC folded naming practices into the larger assemblage of elements that count as civil rights and the difference that these onomastic tactics made in freedom struggles charts certain policy paths for addressing the ongoing renaming moment. One limits the value of critical naming study if one cannot translate it practically and politically (Rose-Redwood et al., 2024). First, there should be a greater respect for and solidarity with grassroots campaigns for American name reform conducted by traditionally marginalized communities, particularly given the power imbalances they often face with decision-makers. This requires members of public groups as well as scholars to refrain from dismissing out of hand current Black onomastic activism as superficial, performative gestures without firmly situating them within deeper traditions of Black naming activism and Black livingness in the face of discriminatory forces. Second, top-down name reform made by powerful actors and institutions—even when they appear to produce progressive results—should be directly informed by and materially accountable to the lived experiences and views of those marginalized communities who have lived with, survived, and opposed certain naming regimes for so many years. Creating these lines of accountability and responsiveness ensures that the renaming is reparative rather than merely being a rebranding strategy (Brasher, 2023). Many large organizations practice procedural injustice in their renaming campaigns, making onomastic decisions with few consultation protocols or targeted public participation. Thus, it is necessary that historically excluded groups occupy naming committees and task forces as well as be engaged in more public consultation generally. Third, as we can learn from looking closely at the case of SNCC’s onomastic tactics in challenging white supremacy, it is imperative to see naming as part of larger social world-making and recognize that the name itself cannot do the full work of antiracism. Rather, it is the way in which we assemble or relationally connect name removal and new name replacement with a wide array of bodily performances, social discourses, place-making strategies, affective environments, and other political practices related to equity and justice—all of which together put names and naming truly to work for social change. It is crucial that onomastic reform policies be about more than just altering the name or the (re)naming process; rather, name reform should be connected in clear and actionable ways to a restructuring of society and a more inclusive distribution of cultural and political rights, socio-economic opportunities, and public recognition of contributions for historically oppressed communities.