Alabama could set national trend by changing name of Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge
On March 7, 1965, more than 600 civil rights demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery. They were simply seeking the right to vote. Local authorities, with the support of then-Governor George Wallace, attempted to thwart their efforts by ordering law enforcement to violently attack the peaceful demonstrators in an event that would be memorialized as “Bloody Sunday.” The shocking images of police brutality were broadcast across the globe, confronting Americans with the ugly reality of racial injustice and creating the political groundswell necessary to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Even as the country evolved from that pivotal moment, by way of the bridge’s name, Alabama continues to consecrate the legacy of those who opposed change, disseminated terror, and defended slavery and racial inequity. Though the days of George Wallace have passed, those same values manifest themselves in street names, statues, buildings and bridges across the state that stand in tribute to a pre-1965 south. They are, ostensibly, vestiges of the supremacy of white political power.
I will never forget when the Selma City Council narrowly voted to move a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), from the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum to a nearby Confederate cemetery. This was 15 years ago, well before the Alabama Legislature preempted the authority of cities and counties to make such decisions. Though I was only 13 at the time, I vividly recall how the statue’s relocation triggered anger, protests and lawsuits. They were all ultimately dropped — and rightfully so.
Another staunch example that still stands is the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The steel-arched bridge on the western border of Selma is emblazoned with the name of a Confederate General, reputed grand dragon of the Alabama KKK, and true believer in white supremacy. According to historian Wayne Flynt, “His fanaticism is borne of a kind of pro-slavery belief that his civilization cannot be maintained without slavery.” At age 75, Pettus was elected to the U.S. Senate by appealing to racial resentment and historians believe the KKK was instrumental in securing his victory.
Thirty years after his death, the State opened the bridge into Selma bearing Pettus’s name. In the bridge’s dedication program, city leaders said it was “much more than the opening of another bridge,” ironically calling it “the answer to ‘The March of Progress.’” Just three years prior, anti-lynching legislation failed to pass U.S. Congress. At the time, separate but equal was still the law of the land and Black people were widely disenfranchised by poll taxes and literacy tests. Having been excluded from the prosperity of the New Deal, Black communities languished in poverty and substandard housing — conditions that still plague far too many Selmians.
Today the bridge has come to signify something diametrically opposed to the legacy state and local leaders celebrated when they chose its name in 1940. That is in large part due to the resilient people of Selma, and their commitment to honoring the legacy of the giants who organized that watershed moment some 55 years ago. If Selma’s history is underlined by the heritage of those who sought to marginalize people of color, then it is highlighted by the bravery of people like John Lewis, Dr. Frederick D. Reese, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boyton Robinson, the 9-year-old Sheyann Webb-Christburg, and the countless foot soldiers who risked life, limb, and liberty to fight for racial equality.
It is easy to understand why some in the Selma community oppose changing the name of the bridge. I used to be one of them. To know that a bridge designated to honor a man who believed Black people undeserving of basic liberties and freedoms is the same bridge my family crossed to ensure I could enjoy the very rights Pettus opposed is monumental. It becomes a full circle moment and those foot soldiers and Selma residents absolutely reserve the right to oppose this change. However, as we look forward, we must reevaluate the world we live in and the future we want to create for the next generation.
As Selmians, we now find ourselves at another critical crossroad that could once again invoke a change that sweeps the nation. In Alabama and beyond, we see state and local governments boldly removing Confederate monuments that stand on tax-payer funded properties. These leaders recognize that the horrors and ideals birthed from the Confederacy have no place in a society that truly embraces principles like “liberty and justice for all.”
There is no memento more symbolic of this contradiction than the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This year, I call on the Alabama Legislature to remove Pettus’s name from the bridge and take the first step to truly signify the monumental role Selma has played in the nation’s journey to become “a more perfect Union.”
Collins Pettaway III is a native of Selma, Alabama. He is a communications specialist, freelance writer, founder of The Pettapull Firm, LLC, and local radio personality. He works with local and state government agencies to advance community and civic engagement programming.