Fifty years ago today, March 7, 1965, hundreds of protesters prepared to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were marching to demand voting rights for Alabama’s Black citizens and their intention was to march 50 miles to the State Capitol in Montgomery. The Alabama State Troopers and many other police officers, with guns, whips, clubs, and baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire stood against them to stop the march. The marchers stopped for a moment to pray just before crossing the bridge when the Alabama State Troopers descended on them in one of the most savage attacks on unarmed citizens. John Lewis, then the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was at the front of the marchers. He was beaten badly and his skull was fractured. Eventually, he was carried by others back to the Brown AME Chapel, the marchers’ organizing church.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is a hallowed place. It has been christened with the blood of those dedicated marchers and fighters for civil rights. But its name still mocks the sacrifices that took place there. Edmund Pettus, 1821-1907, was a two-term U.S. Senator from Alabama and he was the Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK. In 1940, when the State of Alabama named the bridge after Pettus, it new exactly what it was doing. By deliberately and publicly naming the bridge after a leader of the KKK, one of the most brutal and violent groups in American history, Alabama’s statement was clear: this is who we honor. This is the future we seek.
Fifty years after the event that seared this bridge into the larger American consciousness, it is time to rename the bridge. Edmund Pettus had his day and he, and his racist ideas, lost. It is time to rename the bridge, the John Lewis Bridge. John Lewis, that young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who has served as a member of Congress for 25 years, representing Georgia’s 5th District, deserves this honor. As a young man, Lewis stood his ground, watched the troopers come after him and all those behind him, with their clubs, whips, and guns. Lewis, in the light-colored overcoat and backpack above, has earned this honor. It is past time, but it is the right time, to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the John Lewis Bridge.
The photograph above is one of the many famous photographs taken by Spider Martin.
Read and listen to NPR’s story about Bloody Sunday at http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/03/05/391041989/the-racist-history-behind-the-iconic-selma-bridge