A few years ago, I was leading a Civil Rights tour down south. On this particular trip, we took some time to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. If you don't know that significance of this bridge, here is a brief summary (or, you could also watch he movie "Selma"):
In 1965, there were three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. This is a 54 mile walk that requires the crossing of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. The marches that took place here were advocating for the right for Black folks to vote. The first attempted march took place on March 7th 1965 and was led by civil rights leader John Lewis. This peaceful march did not last long. The unarmed marchers were met on the bridge by police officers who attacked them with bully clubs and tear gas. The attack was so extreme that it put over 50 people in the hospital and this day has become known as "Bloody Sunday". The second March was led by Dr. King and ended shortly after it began when Dr. King sensed that he would be walking innocent people into yet another trap by the police (he was right). The third March from Selma brought people from all across the country and the world. Dr. King, John Lewis and many other civil rights leaders were able to successfully March from Selma to Montgomery. These actions, along with many others contributed to the passing of the voting rights act later that year.
The Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma is an important part of Civil rights history.
In 2015, President Barack Obama, Congressman John Lewis and thousands of others celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March at Selma by yet again gathering together to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus bridge. It was a beautiful moment filled with reflection, inspiration and hope. Yet again, this moment confirmed that this bridge is important. Something significant happened on this bridge. This bridge is a symbol, a landmark and a civil rights treasure.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge.
After my time in Selma, seeing the name "Edmund Pettus" in such big letters on the bridge, I was moved to find out who this historic bridge is named after, who is Edmund Pettus?
The answer is unfortunate.
Edmund Pettus was a General in the confederate army. After the war, he became a grand dragon for the Alabama klu klux klan. In case you're wondering, a grand dragon is pretty high up in kkk leadership. I should also mentioned that Edmund Pettus served double duty as both a kkk grand dragon as well as a US senator.
Ok, so this pretty accurately describes our race problem in America. There was a point in time when you could be in leadership both with the kkk and the US government and that service would get a bridge named after you. And even after that SAME BRIDGE becomes a landmark of the civil rights movement, we don't change the name.
Right now, if we go to Selma, we will cross the historic bridge where Black folks and their allies were beaten and bloodied for the right to vote and the bridge, in big bold letters will announce above you that while you may have moved forward, the heroes of this country that still get their names on bridges are Edmund Pettus and that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.
What happened on that bridge was a big deal.
The fact that the bridge is still named after Edmund Pettus is also a big deal.
So what now? I don't want to write about this and post it just so you can know that this specific place in this specific city is still named after someone racist but rather I hope we can all start thinking more critically about race in our country. Can we start looking around at our cultural artifacts and current cultural icons and see how they got there? Can we not assume because laws have changed and rights have changed that somehow we are past race? As long as Christopher Columbus still gets a holiday and Edmund Pettus still has a bridge then we still have work to do.
Find your voice in this conversation and let's all do our part because c'mon people, we can do better than this.