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Calls to rename Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis

The pressure is mounting for Alabama officials to honor the late Rep John Lewis by renaming the Edmond Pettus Bridge after the civil rights hero. 

The Selma bridge became a landmark in the fight for racial justice when Lewis and other civil rights marchers were beaten there 55 years ago on Bloody Sunday, a demonstration that helped galvanize support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Lewis, who died on July 17 after losing his battle against pancreatic cancer, returned to Selma each March in commemoration. He was 80 years old.

The bridge was named after Edmond Pettus, a decorated Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader in Alabama, in May 1940.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Pettus was regarded as a hero in Alabama. He was a lawyer and statesman who served as a US senator. 

The bridge was named after Pettus 40 years after his death and became a symbol of pride for the South. 

It also served as a tangible link to the state’s long history of slavery.  

University of Alabama history professor John Giggie told the magazine that the bridge ‘was named for him, in part, to memorialize his history, of restraining and imprisoning African-Americans in their quest for freedom after the Civil War’.

And now, especially since Lewis’s recent death, more than 523,000 people have signed an online petition to replace Pettus’s name with that of the Georgia congressman.   

Leaders, including Rep James Clyburn of South Carolina and Selma movie director Ava DuVernay are advocating for the idea, but state officials say any decision would have to be approved by Alabama’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

On Sunday, Carolina Randall Williams, the great-great-granddaughter of Pettus, released a statement pushing for the bridge to be renamed.   

‘We name things after honorable Americans to commemorate their legacies. That bridge is named after a treasonous American who cultivated and prospered from systems of degradation and oppression before and after the Civil War,’ Williams wrote.  

‘We need to rename the bridge because we need to honor an American hero, a man who made that bridge a place worth remembering. John Lewis secured that bridge’s place on the right side of history. 

‘We are not a people that were made to cling to relics of the past at the cost of our hope for the future. Renaming the bridge in John Lewis’s honor would be a testament to the capacity for progress, the right-mindedness and striving toward freedom that are at the heart of what’s best about the American spirit,’ Williams added. 

But there are some that saw renaming the bridge for Lewis would dishonor local activists who spent years advocating for civil rights before Lewis arrived in 1965. 

Others fear tourism would be hurt if the Pettus name were gone despite it belonging to a white supremacist. 

State lawmakers are unlikely to act without the backing of area leaders, and right now there’s no sign of widespread support.

Rep Prince Chestnut, whose state legislative district includes Selma, called Lewis ‘a great and noble man’ but added that renaming the bridge for Lewis ‘is not appropriate’.

‘There were many Selmians and Alabamians who were either on the bridge in March 1965, near the vicinity or precipitated the situation that changed this country for the better. John was not the only one,’ Chestnut said in a statement.

Mayor Darrio Melton called it ‘insulting’ that the wishes of Selma residents haven’t been taken more into account during discussions about the bridge name dating back at least five years. 

And focusing on a name rather than ways to solve racial and economic inequality disrespects Lewis’s legacy, he said.

‘Everybody is talking about changing the name of the bridge, but they’re not talking about investing in Selma,’ Melton said. ‘To me it’s more about the system than it is the symbol.’

Michael Starr Hopkins, a Washington-based consultant who launched the fast-growing online petition, has already started to contact Selma-area leaders. 

Starr said he didn’t know how much money has been raised by a nonprofit he founded to support the renaming idea and likely wouldn’t release a fundraising total if he did.

‘We are in a moment. Are we going to fight each other or the system of oppression that has held Selma back?’ Hopkins said.

The state senator representing Selma, Malika Sanders-Fortier, said she’s heard from no one in Selma who supports renaming the bridge for Lewis only. A group that was recently formed to make sure the town has a voice in the debate, Selma Matters, has spoken with Hopkins, she said.

‘My hope is that we can come to some sort of compromise,’ said Sanders-Fortier, who succeeded her father, former state Sen Hank Sanders, in office.

Sanders, who has publicly advocated for renaming the span The Bridge to Freedom, sponsored a resolution that would have allowed the bridge to be renamed in 2015 when he was still in the Senate, but the measure died in the House.

Gov Kay Ivey would work with lawmakers if a bill to rename the bridge reached her desk, but her aide said that seems unlikely to happen. 

The Democratic leader in Alabama’s Republican-controlled House, Rep Anthony Daniels, said he’d follow Chestnut’s lead on the issue since the bridge is in Chestnut’s district.

Dedicated in 1940 during the period of legalized segregation, the twin-arched bridge over the Alabama River was named for Pettus, who fought for the Confederacy and was a white supremacist and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.

At the time, Pettus was praised for his work after the Civil War to fight the emergence of Black political power.

A quarter-century after the bridge opened, Lewis led some 600 voting rights marchers across the span until they were attacked by Alabama state troopers, who beat Lewis and others in a violent spectacle that came to be called Bloody Sunday. 

Even more people subsequently made the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Today, the hometown ‘foot soldiers’ who marched with Lewis see the bridge as a symbol of freedom, and many relish the fact that the name of a one-time Confederate is also associated with civil rights for blacks. If anyone is honored anew, they say, it should be local activists.

‘I just feel strongly that it should not be named “John Lewis Bridge,”‘ Lynda Lowery, who was among the marchers, said.

Chestnut said he hasn’t spoken with a single local survivor of the attack who supports renaming the bridge for Lewis. 

It might be time to change the name of the bridge, Chestnut said, but he’d favor calling it something like Bloody Sunday Bridge or Historic Selma Bridge rather than naming it for Lewis.

District Attorney Michael Jackson said the wishes of Selma residents matter most but the national dialogue over renaming the bridge for Lewis should be taken into account.

‘The name of that bridge is bigger than Selma,’ he said.

On Sunday, Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the final time as remembrances continued for the civil rights icon.

This time, Lewis crossed it alone – instead of arm-in-arm with civil rights and political leaders – after his coffin was loaded atop a horse-drawn wagon that retraced the route through Selma from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the 1965 march began.

As the black wagon pulled by a team of dark-colored horses approached the bridge, members of the crowd shouted ‘Thank you, John Lewis!’ and ‘Good trouble!’ the phrase Lewis used to describe his tangles with white authorities during the civil rights movement.

Some crowd members sang the gospel song Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Jesus. 

Later, some onlookers sang the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome and other gospel tunes.

Lewis served in the US House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death.

He will lie in state at the Capitol Building on Monday and Tuesday, allowing time for socially distanced tributes to the protégé of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. 

An invitation-only arrival ceremony for Lewis’s casket at the Capitol was held on Monday afternoon and a public viewing will be held on Monday evening and Tuesday, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed in a joint statement.

Due to concerns over the coronavirus, the public viewing was held outdoors on the East Front Steps of the Capitol.

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