Why the Edmund Pettus Bridge should be named after John Lewis
OPINION: Understanding the accomplishments and sacrifices of Lewis -- and who Edmund Pettus actually was — there’s no choice in the matter.
A champion for civil rights and human dignity, an activist, leader and statesman, Congressman John Lewis has become an ancestor. Honoring his legacy means continuing the struggle for civil rights and voting rights, equality and justice, and renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama the John Lewis Bridge.
If you understand the accomplishments and sacrifices of John Lewis — and who Edmund Pettus actually was — you know there’s no choice in the matter.
With the death of Rep. Lewis — which also took place the same day as the passing of C.T. Vivian — and the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, there are growing calls to rename the iconic bridge after the lawmaker.
It is one thing to speak of the John Lewis legacy in vague, laudatory terms and celebrate him as a leader of the civil rights movement. It is quite another to speak specifically about the price he paid and the sacrifices he made for freedom for Black people.
Lewis was a participant in what has become known as Bloody Sunday, which took place on March 7, 1965, during the historic march from Selma to Montgomery as part of a push for voting rights for Black folks.
Organized by Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others, the march itself was sparked by the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson — an activist who had been brutally beaten and shot by an Alabama state trooper during a voting rights march on Feb. 18 of that year.
Because history always repeats itself.
On Bloody Sunday, 600 nonviolent protesters in Selma, including Lewis, were brutally assaulted by police, state troopers under the orders of Gov. George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two-legged police dogs unleashed four-legged police dogs, billy clubs, leather whips and tear gas on the marchers.
Lewis, then 25, sustained a fractured skull from a police beating on that bridge. The events of that day helped to enact the Voting Rights Act.
But who was Edmund Pettus? While John Lewis was a drum major for justice, Edmund Pettus was a general in the Confederate Army. An ardent supporter of secession and slavery, he was the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and a U.S. senator.
The bridge was built across the Alabama River and dedicated in Pettus’ name in 1940 — a full 33 years after his death, in the midst of Jim Crow segregation.
Today, in the era of George Floyd and COVID-19, racial violence and police brutality are as much of a reality as they were for John Lewis in 1965. Monuments to white supremacists, secesh, colonizers, slave traders, mass murderers and domestic terrorists are being toppled and renamed across the nation.
This reflects an effort to retell history based on a narrative of truth and justice. NASCAR and the Pentagon banned the Stars and Bars, and even the state of Mississippi retired its Confederate-infused state flag. Grand Dragon Pettus’ time is up as the calls to remove his name grow louder.
“Edmund Pettus was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man, John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America, rather than to honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms,” House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on NBC News’ Meet the Press.
“I think they will take a nice picture of that bridge with Pettus’ name on it, put it in a museum somewhere, dedicate it to the Confederacy, and then rename that bridge, and repaint it — redecorate it — the John R. Lewis Bridge,” Clyburn added. “I believe that will give the people of Selma something to rally around.”
A Change.org petition to rename the bridge garnered over 460,000 signatures as of Sunday.
John Lewis took a serious beating and shed blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Klansman. This is why the name of that bridge must be changed yesterday.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove.