Why Changing the Name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a Mistake
Today marks the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Civil Rights marchers were brutally beaten back by state police while trying to cross Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus bridge on their way to the state capital to demand voting rights. The bridge that the marchers crossed in March 1965 (as well as tens of thousands of visitors, who have since crossed in honor and in memory of the events of that year) is named after a Confederate officer and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
A student petition to change the name of the bridge has been organized by area students and has garnered over 150,000 signatures. Though the petition does not offer any specific suggestions, there has been a call in recent years to change the name to honor Georgia Representative John Lewis. Given Lewis’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and his involvement in the Selma marches this would certainly be a well-deserved honor. Few will deny that Lewis is an American hero.
Historian Douglas Brinkley supports changing the name to honor Lewis:
I urge President Barack Obama, the National Park Service, the state of Alabama and the city of Selma to “do the right thing.” Like the Statue of Liberty, the John Lewis Bridge would become a sacred place for visitors to reflect on noble American traditions — in this case, peaceful protest and voting rights.
Who is going to disagree with the spirit of this petition and the suggestion to honor Lewis? Certainly not me, but it is the name of the bridge that gives the march its meaning in history and memory.
The Selma marchers did not just face down tear gas and clubs. In crossing that bridge fifty years ago today they effectively stated that their future and the nation’s future would no longer conform to the world that Edmund Pettus defended. They were willing to give their lives for this and they understood that it would be a long campaign. “Bloody Sunday” is not simply a moment in time. Its meaning reaches into our nation’s racial past and extends to each of us today. The name of the bridge is inextricably wound up in this process of history and memory.
Every commemorative march that has taken place since then is a reaffirmation of our nation’s commitment to move beyond Pettus’s world and the one that made the naming of the bridge in his honor in 1940 even possible. It’s what I thought about one year ago when I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s what I thought about while touring Selma’s neighborhoods and while walking its downtown district. And it’s what I am thinking about now having read the Justice Department’s report on racial discrimination in Ferguson’s Police Department so close to this anniversary.
Rather than changing its name, we should highlight the history of Edmund Pettus and we should do so on the bridge itself. Allow visitors to walk in the shadow of these giants by reminding them of the history that strengthened the arms that wielded those clubs and discharged those tear gas canisters. This is how we honor John Lewis and the rest of the Selma marchers.