In 1940, thousands of people gathered at the river city to dedicate a new bridge in honor of Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader, but 25 years later, the bridge became a sensational and global landmark when civil rights marchers were beaten at its base.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge carries the country’s Route 80 Business across the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama. Built in 1940, it is named after Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, senator, and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The bridge is a steel through arch bridge with a central span of 250 feet (76 m). Nine large concrete arches support the bridge and roadway on the east side.
The Bridge was the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when police attacked and brutally beat Civil Rights Movement demonstrators with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the state capital, Montgomery. The marchers crossed the bridge again on March 21 and successfully walked to the Capitol building. The bridge was declared a National Historic Landmark on February 27, 2013.
Today, with thousands of people protesting against racial injustice and systemic racism, a years-old push is gaining steam to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in honor of Rep. John Lewis, who led the 1965 marchers on “Bloody Sunday.” But the idea is drawing opposition in Selma, including some who marched with Lewis that day. Changing the name would require approval from the Alabama Legislature. One proposed alternative name is the John Lewis Bridge, after John Lewis, the civil rights leader who played a prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches. An earlier attempt to change the name in 2010 failed. Some Selma residents are opposed, believing that changing the name will do nothing to improve race relations in the country.
Pettus’ name has ironically come to also symbolize Black freedom and shouldn’t be painted over, some say. Others oppose the move because Lewis was an outsider who followed in the footsteps of locals who had worked to end segregation for years before he arrived. Still others fear a change would hurt tourism in a poor town with little going for it other than its civil rights history.
Lynda Lowery, who was 14 and received 35 stitches in her head on Bloody Sunday, doesn’t want the bridge renamed for anyone. She said the span over the muddy Alabama River “isn’t a monument, it’s a part of history.” The bridge was named for Pettus, who fought for the Confederacy and was a reputed KKK grand wizard who served in the Senate at a time when Jim Crow laws gave white people near-total control in Alabama. He died in 1907.
On the day of the 1940 bridge dedication, which some 7,000 attended, a parade included a float depicting slaves, the town newspaper printed a laudatory biography which said Pettus was “devoted wholly to the upbuilding of our state and the bringing of order out of the chaos of carpet-baggery and negro dominance” after the Civil War.
Online petitions to rename the bridge have been around since 2015, the year then-President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush visited Selma to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when state troopers beat voting rights marchers as they crossed the bridge on the way to Montgomery, the capital.
In 2015, Lewis and Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, the lone African American in Alabama’s congressional delegation, co-authored an opinion piece opposing any change to the bridge’s name. “Changing the name of the Bridge would compromise the historical integrity of the voting rights movement,” they said.
But much has changed since then. Lewis was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in December, and the drive to eradicate Confederate symbols gained momentum after Floyd’s death; multiple rebel monuments have come down since.
With one online petition to rename the bridge for Lewis gaining more than 285,000 signatures, Sewell recently said she’d changed her mind and now supports removing Pettus’ name. Sewell, who is from Selma, personally favors naming the bridge for Lewis but said the decision should be up to townspeople.
“While I believe the historical significance of the bridge transcends the man for which it was named, I also acknowledge that in this moment everything must be on the table, and that includes renaming the bridge,” Sewell said in a statement.
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