Everyone has seen the footage of the famous 1965 march in Selma, which took place at the Edmund Pettus bridge, a march that was reenacted and commemorated this weekend. What I didn’t know, and you probably didn’t either, was that this bridge was named after a white supremacist. Some people in Alabama are trying to change that.
This weekend, as President Obama and members of Congress travel to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a new generation of activists is working to strip the name of Edmund Pettus — a former state legislator who doubled as a top KKK official — from the city’s most famous civil rights landmark.
Students Unite, an organization made mostly of college and graduate students focused on social justice issues in Selma, has collected more than 158,000 signatures on a Change.org petition calling on Alabama leaders to rename the bridge, where police viciously beat demonstrators marching for voting rights on March 7, 1965.
But because the bridge is both part of a federal highway and a National Historic landmark —not to mention a source of sentimentality for some in Alabama — erasing the avowed racist’s name from it won’t be as simple as some think…
It’s also right there on the Federal Highway Administration’s website in its description of the structure, which was built in 1940 and carries traffic across the Alabama River: “It had been named after a Civil War General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan who served in the United States Senate from 1897 until his death in 1907. He was the last Confederate General to serve in the Senate.”
According to Gainey, there was an effort to remove Pettus’ name from the bridge five years ago, but it didn’t take. Now, he says, “there is enough momentum to actually get it done.”
That’s because, while the events of Bloody Sunday are commemorated every year, this year, the 50th anniversary, is different. With the release of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film, Selma, which depicted Martin Luther King’s marches from Montgomery to Selma, the city’s role in the civil rights movement has been in the national spotlight.
Gainey thinks the heightened attention to the city’s civil rights legacy as a result of the film — including the scene highlighting when marchers were beaten by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge — has inspired renewed interest in honoring the actions of the participants.
Because it’s a national historic landmark and a federal highway, Congress would probably have to get involved to change the name. I would suggest the Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge. Or perhaps the Fuck You George Wallace Bridge.