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.

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30 comments… add one
  • Larry rinehart May 5, 2015 @ 20:54

    Well written and I am sure we’ll intended. However, by your logic and reasoning, Germany should have bridges named after Adolph Hitler. I’m thinking you are very wrong on this

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2015 @ 0:58

      No, I don’t think it does, but thanks for the comment.

    • Mary Dean Cason May 6, 2015 @ 7:17

      I think you miss the point of my logic and reasoning. It is not about bridges springing up and being named after terrorists, it is keeping alive the place where a horror happened, not prettying it up with a more palatable name. Whether the marchers died on a barge floating across the river or walking along a train trellis, naming the means of crossing in honor of Lewis shifts the focus away from what should not be forgotten to commemorating a noble person. I’d be in favor of a statue of Lewis and the many who marched along side him at the entrance to the bridge or at the culmination of their journey. One day, hopefully, Selma’s economy will improve and a new bridge will be built. I hope the old bridge remains–rusting and cordoned off as a relic of the stain of our past. We cannot forget our past.

  • Mary Dean Cason Mar 26, 2015 @ 18:24

    Though out history, horrific things have happened in what we now consider hallowed ground. Survivors haven’t moved to rename Auschwitz for Anne Frank or some other soul who perished there. It is the name itself that brings the hand to the throat. Not a Jew in the world wants the names Auschwitz or Birkenau to be forgotten. Reducing the impact of the name, Edmund Pettus, by giving it a noble one, like John Lewis, takes the sting away. It is a welt than Americans should keep scratching.

    • Dave Stilwell Mar 26, 2015 @ 23:37

      Ms Mary Dean Cason – All I can say is here, here! As I said in an earlier comment, if Edmund Pettus was alive today, he would want the name changed because of its powerful symbolism. I agree with you completely.

  • Dave Stilwell Mar 11, 2015 @ 19:40

    I agree, Kevin, on not changing the name of the bridge. Not only has the name of the bridge become an iconic “battle” designation in the civil rights struggle, it is supremely ironic and a unique symbol of triumph over treason and racism. The bridge is no longer an honor to Edmund Pettus and his band of traitors and terrorists but an eternal symbol of struggle and the inextinguishable human drive to be free. If Edmund Pettus was alive today I’m sure he would want the name of the bridge changed and that’s why it shouldn’t be.

  • tmheaney Mar 10, 2015 @ 6:27

    I wish WordPress allowed pictures. I’d post the photo I took of of the street sign in Selma of where Martin Luther King Street meets Jeff Davis Avenue. (It is one block from where MLK St. crosses Clark Ave.)

    Historical commemoration makes for strange cross-streets.

  • David Mar 8, 2015 @ 15:14

    Hi James……perhaps I chose my descriptive word of this fellow incorrectly. In fact, I’m quite sure you are correct, and stand corrected. I suppose the fact that our time as humans is so rife with ideas that history has proved to be at the very least wrong………..up to, and including, downright evil, that the word slipped out. One thing is true no matter where historians drop the particular event in their wrong through evil scale, and that is that some very intelligent people were for it. I suppose my use of the word “Lunatic”, came to mind because in my view, evil equals lunacy. it seems through our history, the more evil the idea, the more people were killed in it’s effect at the time. But that’s not to say that there weren’t intelligent people behind these ideas…….if anything, the opposite would be true. So why don’t I change it to “Deluded Bigot”, and leave it at that? I suppose we can both agree that this fellow’s resume was based on a deluded bigotry. What do you think?

  • Casey Lutton Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:26

    I too am hesitant to change the name. Rather than to mask history, let us never forget how far we’ve come.

  • David Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:06

    I can certainly understand your take on not renaming the bridge Kevin. To keep it as a reminder of the insanity of the racism, and horror of what occurred there during the March is a symbolism that should never be forgotten. However, I can also understand people wanting to change the name, as the sick people, and their ilk, who named the bridge after this lunatic in the first place, are still alive and well, and living in this country by the millions. Ferguson points this out, as well as the fact that the people of Alabama themselves have had 50 years to change the name of this bridge, and have not. That’s what we need to strive for as a country. That will be progress. When that happens, your idea will have come to fruition. As there are still people in the world who worship hitler, I don’t suppose that we’ll ever 100% rid the world of ignorance and hate. I’m just thinking that unfortunately, we haven’t reached the point of Not Making Things Happen. I just signed the petition, and it’s over 160,000 signatures. Let’s change the name. Your idea is wonderful, but we’re not quite there yet.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:10

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. I am very sympathetic with your position and I applaud the students for taking an interest in their community. I keep coming back to that image yesterday of the president’s motorcade traveling under the name of that bridge into Selma. That to me is progress and the promise of a better tomorrow.

      • Andrew Raker Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:57

        I could go either way on this issue, and I agree with Kevin about the visual symbolism of the old name, but I also can’t stop thinking about the visual impact of the current sign remaining on the bridge while the bridge itself is renamed. I haven’t been to Selma yet, so I’m not sure that there’s room for it, but I’d imagine a modern metal reflective sign with the John Lewis Bridge name, while the historic lettering with Pettus’ name remains on the bridge. Renaming a structure while keeping up historic signage has happened before, as with the facade of the oldest terminal at Washington National Airport. That way the imagery of the bridge is retained, reminding visitors of what was overcome there, while also changing it to honor the work of those who struggled to improve America there and beyond. It might not make anyone happy since it’s a compromise, but I wanted to throw it out there.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:58

          This is an interesting suggestion and one that I have not considered.

    • James Harrigan Mar 8, 2015 @ 8:19

      David, you and I are on the same page on this, but I think it is misleading to refer to Edmund Pettus as a “lunatic”. There was nothing crazy about him as far as I can tell: he was a determined and accomplished leader in the cause of White Supremacy, a system that worked very well for him. It is evil, but not lunatic, for him to fight to preserve it.

  • Lyle Smith Mar 7, 2015 @ 21:39

    Folks, lets honor and preserve our history, not destroy it. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and all those other people didn’t walk over the John Lewis Bridge, but the Edmund Pettus bridge.

    How one feels about Edmund Pettus doesn’t matter. None of this is about you or your feelings, or anybody elses feelings. What matters is that history is honored and preserved, so that people we will never know can one day see for themselves that white people in Selma named a bridge after a man such as Edmund Pettus. Don’t you want people to learn about white supremacy? Don’t you want to be able to point to tangible constructions of white supremacy so that future generations will truly understand why there was a civil rights movement in the first place? I know I do.

  • Jessie Alan Sanford Mar 7, 2015 @ 15:52

    Have any of you besides Mr. Levin every been to Selma? They have a hell’va lot more problems than the the name of a bridge.

    • Tresalyn Apr 23, 2015 @ 19:26

      I agree! I attended Selma University for my first year of college. I visited two years ago and took a drive by the school and through the town. I was saddened to say the least. Selma has been abandoned by many in so many ways.

  • Merv Mar 7, 2015 @ 13:12

    Tear down the bridge. Build a monument and educational center. Build a modern bridge to symbolize the future. The Berlin Wall no longer stands–only memories and pieces. Tear down the bridge and build the future.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2015 @ 13:14

      There is a new museum at the foot of the bridge.

      • Tresalyn Apr 23, 2015 @ 19:24

        The museum is only a small depiction of what truly happened during the Civil Rights Era. I’m sure some organization or the government could find a way to add more to Selma, beginning with the reconstruction of the tiny museum. With the history in Selma, more should be invested in reviving Selma. It is poorly supported financially, especially with the history it holds.

  • Muhammad E. Lee Mar 7, 2015 @ 10:56

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot after listening to the NPR bit on the topic earlier this week. [ http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/03/05/391041989/the-racist-history-behind-the-iconic-selma-bridge ] I’m divided but, leaning towards toward keeping the name which is a reversal or my normal stand regarding Confederate names on public works. As you point out, Pettus’ own objectionable history is inextricable from the events of 1965. My initial impulse is that the site has somehow been sanctified (?) by the violence of Bloody Sunday 1965 in a way that turns Pettus’ worldview on its head and rebukes his legacy. Not quite sure if those are the words I would like to use, but Kenneth Foote’s Shadowed Ground stands out for me here.

    Also, I feel like Americans generally have a photographic archive in mind now when they hear “Edmund Pettus Bridge,” no? That’s something to consider in a discussion of how the name and the landscape is remembered publicly. A photo or mural installation at or near the bridge would make for one hell of a memory project not to mention a community conversation.

    Alternate plan: as the Pettus bridge ages out turn it into an elevated park and build the new John Lewis bridge right near by. Lewis Bridge should be taller than the old bridge.

  • James Harrigan Mar 7, 2015 @ 9:45

    I disagree, Kevin, as you might expect. The bridge was named after a murderous terrorist for a very specific reason: to celebrate and promote white supremacy. It was intended to send a message to the local black population that the terror of the Klan was supported and endorsed by the local government.

    Changing the name from that of a terrorist to that of a freedom fighter like John Lewis sends the opposite message, that the government is now in the hands of those who believe in human rights and reject white supremacy. Of course you are right that marching over the Edmund Pettis Bridge is itself a deeply symbolic political act, literally walking over and stamping on the memory of a famous white supremacist terrorist. But that symbolism, and the importance of the first March 50 years ago, will not be diminished by changing the name.

    you urge Rather than changing its name, we should highlight the history of Edmund Pettus and we should do so on the bridge itself.
    I think this is a false choice. We can, and should, highlight the truth about the terrorist Edmind Pettis at the bridge, while at the same time insulting and dishonoring his memory by taking his name off the bridge.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2015 @ 10:01

      Thanks for the comment. I am sympathetic with your point, but I maintain that keeping the name allows for more meaningful forms of commemoration and remembrance.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 7, 2015 @ 11:02

        I’m inclined to agree with you on this one, Kevin. I think Confederate monuments and the names of streets and places commemorating Confederates will always serve as a teaching tool on how pervasive and influential the Lost Cause became… perhaps a greater teaching tool than any textbook ever will be,

        • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2015 @ 11:07

          Watching the president’s motorcade drive over the bridge and under its name toward the crowd pretty much confirmed what the feeling behind this post.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2015 @ 12:59

      Ava Duvernay, who as you know directed Selma nailed it: “I took great pleasure in directing scenes on this bridge. I imagine him [Pettus] turning over in his grave a little bit, thinking ‘where did it all go wrong?! This was not supposed to happen!'”

    • QM Aug 16, 2015 @ 7:30

      Hear, hear

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