Column: Rename Edmund Pettus Bridge as The Bridge to Freedom
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is a powerful symbol all over the world.
People in Asia, particularly in China and India, have spoken to me in person about the bridge as a symbol of freedom. People in Egypt, South Africa, Mali, Senegal and other countries on the continent of Africa have spoken to me in person concerning this symbol of freedom. People all over Europe have lifted the bridge as a symbol of freedom. People in Brazil, Argentina, and Columbia on the continent of South America have personally raised the Edmund Pettus Bridge with me as a symbol of freedom. People in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean Islands and Canada have lifted the bridge as a symbol of freedom. All over the world, the bridge is a symbol of voting rights, a symbol of struggle, a symbol of freedom. The name of the bridge must be consistent with this powerful symbolism. We must rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge as The Bridge To Freedom.
Powerful history was made on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7, 1965. On that day, a band of 550-600 or so brave souls marched over the bridge on their way to Montgomery, Ala. They were protesting the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama state trooper. They were protesting the lack of voting rights for Black people in America. They were protesting the lack of freedom for Black people in these United States of America. They were marching to Montgomery in search of freedom.
This group of brave marchers was met by a horde of law enforcement personnel: state troopers; sheriff deputies; policemen; deputized male citizens; and others. The marchers were brutally beaten by these law enforcement hordes. Some lawmen were on horseback beating marchers with clubs, guns, whips and other objects. Marchers were tear gassed. It was a terrible moment of brutal oppression. It was captured on television and shown around the world. This day immediately became known as Bloody Sunday.
Instead of this being a moment of dismal defeat, it became a moment of glorified struggle. The struggle was for freedom, for voting rights, for human rights. It was a struggle where one side had everything: all the laws and lawmen; all the guns and gunmen; all the banks and money; all the businesses and jobs; all the voters and elected officials; all the newspapers and other media; all the everything. The marchers had virtually nothing. Still, they took marching feet, singing songs, and praying prayers and wrought a great victory. What happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is history because it initiated the Selma-to-Montgomery March and helped forge the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It inspired freedom struggles all over the world. The Bridge became a worldwide symbol of Freedom. As a result, people come from all over the world to see it. They do not come to see the name Edmund Pettus; they come to see the bridge which symbolizes freedom.
Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate general, U.S. Senator, and a lifelong white supremacist. He fought to maintain slavery, crush Black voting rights, and oppress Black people at every turn. Pettus was the exact opposite of the freedom, voting rights and human rights symbolized by the bridge.
When I was in the Alabama State Senate, I attempted to change the name of the Bridge in 2015. I initiated a Senate Joint Resolution to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to The Journey to Freedom Bridge. Republicans as well as Democrats voted unanimously for the resolution. When the resolution arrived in the Alabama House for consideration, Rep. Darrio Melton, now the mayor of Selma, joined with Congressman John Lewis and Congresswoman Terri Sewell to kill the name change resolution. It was a terrible moment for me.
These leaders argued that changing the name would be changing history. This is a false argument. History is what happened on the bridge, not the name on the bridge. We can never change what happened on the bridge, but we can change the name on the bridge. Every time we speak the words “Edmund Pettus Bridge,” a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is lifted in honor. That is not what we intend but is what we do. I know that in the last month Congresswoman Sewell changed her mind about changing the name, and I believe Congressman Lewis and Mayor Melton may have changed their minds as well, but I do not know for certain.
So many contributed to the Voting Rights Movement. There were at least 550 others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day. One of them, Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, had been fighting courageously for voting rights in Selma/Dallas County since the early 1930s. Also, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson had been the most urgent reason for people marching over the Bridge that day. Others who gave their lives in the Selma Voting Rights Movement such as the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo are due consideration. The Courageous Eight risked their lives, safety and livelihood. Many strugglers were jailed and or beaten, including schoolchildren. No one person moved the Voting Rights Movement in Selma or in this country but many did. We must rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge as The Bridge To Freedom.
Let me enumerate why the Edmund Pettus Bridge must be renamed as the Bridge to Freedom. First, what happened on the bridge took us one mighty step toward freedom. Second, we are still on the way to freedom, crossing bridges over rivers of oppression. Third, The Bridge to Freedom name lifts all those who were on the bridge that fateful Sunday on March 7, 1965, as opposed to honoring only one person. Fourth, the name lifts all those who struggled for voting rights across this country. Fifth, the name lifts all those who paid the ultimate price with their lives. And sixth, it is already a symbol of freedom, so The Bridge To Freedom name will be consistent with the reality.
Let’s change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge now. Let’s lift the history of the Voting Rights struggle without lifting one who fought to maintain slavery, suppress Black voting rights and impose white supremacy with every resource at his command. Let’s lift The Bridge To Freedom name, which honors everyone who struggled or continues to struggle or will struggle in the future for voting rights and freedom. And the symbolism will be unified, not doubled edged. We must rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge as The Bridge to Freedom.
Names are important. They are the initial element of identity. Every name says something about a person, animal or thing. Other elements of identity either add to, take away from, or modify the name. A name should not contradict the essence of identity. We must rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge as The Bridge To Freedom.
Henry “Hank” Sanders was a Democratic member of the Alabama senate for 35 years.
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