“I do not think they have had any such purpose whatever,” Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, asserted — a falsehood, given his prominent position in the Democratic Party, then closely linked to the Klan, and his later role, beginning in 1877, as Alabama’s Grand Dragon. In the last 10 years of his life, 1897 to 1907, Pettus, who settled in Selma after the war, represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate, thoroughly devoted to white supremacy.
The chain of racial oppression, and historical obfuscation thereof, that connects Pettus’s long-ago lie to our time is long indeed.
On Sunday, a caisson bearing the casket of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia crossed the bridge in Selma named for Pettus, retracing the route Lewis and his fellow African American voting-rights marchers tried to take 55 years previously, only to be met by club-wielding police. The televised thuggery, and the nonviolent attitude of its victims, galvanized President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress and the country in favor of the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis’s death has prompted renewed calls to take Pettus’s name off the setting for this turning point in the Civil Rights Revolution, and put Lewis’s name on it.
This would be a dramatic change, given the powerful symbolic relationship between what the marchers did and the name of the place where they did it. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is hallowed ground of the civil rights struggle. To rename it, either for Lewis himself or as Journey to Freedom Bridge, another proffered alternative, would almost be like renaming Gettysburg.
It won’t necessarily be easily accomplished in any case. Alabama’s legislature, dominated by a supermajority of conservative Republicans, passed a law in 2017 that makes it extremely difficult to remove or alter monuments and street names honoring Confederates. A unified movement by Selma’s residents might overcome that retrograde legislation, but there is ambivalence in the community: concerns about a name change’s impact on tourism, and objections from some African American veterans of the march who have said that preserving the name helps preserve memories of the event, as The Post’s Sydney Trent has reported.
The bridge itself is a monument of sorts to another crucial factor in the history of race in America: the relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Southern white Democrats, including members of Alabama’s congressional delegation who, on Aug. 17, 1937, secured Roosevelt’s final approval for funds to replace what was a decrepit bridge over the Alabama River dating to 1885.
Alabama New Dealer Rep. Sam Hobbs was present at the Edmund Pettus Bridge’s dedication on May 24, 1940. The accompanying parade included no black participants, except for a musical group. A float was designed to represent an old Alabama River ferry, with “a cargo which included a cow, bale of cotton, feed and plantation negroes,” as the Selma Times-Journal reported.
Naming the bridge for Pettus was announced as a fait accompli by the governor on the same day Roosevelt approved the bridge’s funding. Why, exactly, Alabama’s politicians chose to honor Pettus is not clear, though it surely had something to do with his grandson Edmund Winston Pettus’s powerful position in the state Democratic Party and Selma Chamber of Commerce.
Also potentially relevant was the rise of the black Sharecroppers Union in Depression-era rural Alabama. By 1934, the federal government was enabling black farmers around Selma to vote — albeit only on controls over cotton production under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The local sheriff declared this “dangerous,” according to historian Karlyn Forner. In July 1935, whites took union leader Joe Spinner Johnson from his home near Selma and lynched him.
If Selma’s whites wanted to reinforce that intimidation, one way to do it would be to emblazon the towering new bridge with the name of a man who, their local newspaper claimed, had fought “negro dominance” with “magnificent strength, physical and moral courage and brilliant intellect.”
Selma’s editorialists had previously noted that the new bridge would be “so impressive as to cause Selma to become known in the future as ‘the place where the bridge is.’ ”
On that point, they proved prophetic. What’s needed now is a new monument, in the form of a renamed bridge, statuary or some other prominent public display, to the magnificent courage of those who strove to undo Pettus’s legacy in Selma, John Lewis foremost among them.