John Lewis Dies: Renaming Selma (AL) Bridge Picking Up Speed Despite Opposition

Edmund Pettus (Still) in Selma, Alabama. Photo taken by James MacCray

SELMA, ALABAMA/ WASHINGTON, DC- Washington and the US are in mourning as the country lost a key player in the equal rights movements.

John Lewis, the revered civil rights pioneer who represented Georgia in Congress for nearly 35 years, died Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer since December last year.

Lewis became an icon of the 1960s civil rights movement through his leadership alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the non-violent protest movement and landmark peace marches of the era. He was a notable speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and in the consequential 1965 march in his native Alabama depicted in the 2014 film, “Selma.” On that day, March 7 1965, Lewis, along with fellow activist Hosea Williams led 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where they were met with a line of Alabama State Troopers. Despite the peaceful protests, the state troopers moved in with tear gas and night sticks and assaulted as many protesters as possible. Lewis was one of the 17 who were seriously injured, suffering from a broken skull. A similar protest at the same bridge two days later resulted in one person being killed and dozens more injured. The protests became a crucial point as the Voting Rights Law was passed on August 6th of that same year.  In 2009, Lewis received an apology from one of the anti-protesters for assaulting him during a Freedom Ride Protest in 1961. Two years later, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Photo taken by Lawrence Jackson

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the site of the Bloody Sunday riots, has been a focus of a renaming campaign. The multiple-span arch bridge with a steel through arch main span was built in 1940 by Hensen Stevensen and spans the Alabama River at US 80. It was named after Edmund Pettus (1821-1907), a US Senator from Alabama who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War and later became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Petitions to change the name in 2010 and 2015 failed to bear fruit because of the fact that it would not change much for racial relations between the blacks and the whites. Yet since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th and the subsequent violent protests that followed, another petition has started, which calls for dropping the Pettus name and naming it for the late Senator Lewis. At present, hundreds of thousands of people have signed the petition, calling for the bridge to be renamed in Lewis’s memory.  Whether the historic bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013, will be honored for Lewis remains open, for even though the movement is gaining nationwide, despite the spikes Corona Virus infections, it has been met with opposition- even from President Donald Trump.

Bloody Sunday Riots in Selma, AL on MArch 7, 1965. Photo by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (public domain)

In an interview with CBS News, the President’s response to the question of why more and more blacks are being killed, his response came with “So are whites; more whites than blacks.” Trump has also opposed the removal of Confederate statues and statues of people who have had a role in racial confrontations and has even proposed jail time to those who remove or even deface statues.  Still, with the wind of change blowing clearly in favor of Joe Biden, his challenger in the 2020 Presidential Elections and with many measures to reimage America by eradicating team names, reimaging products like Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemina syrup and rewriting American history by looking critically at several key figures because of their dark pasts, it’s becoming clear that America wants to reinvent itself by becoming the country that welcomes people from all around the world, using key figures like John Lewis, as examples for the struggles that everyone had in creating a home and an identity in the country- to enjoy the riches of life just like the rest. It will become clear, even after the Presidential Elections on November 3rd that there will be no stopping the change, regardless of whether Biden or Trump take the Oval Office.

Portrait of Rep. John Lewis. Source: US House of Representatives (public domain)

Lewis leaves behind a son, John-Miles. His wife Lillian died on New Year’s Eve in 2012. Yet he leaves behind a legacy that America is pursuing in his honor.  He left a lot of quotes for people to remember him by. This is one of them:

I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.’

 

You can read more on John Lewis by clicking here.

 

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One thought on “John Lewis Dies: Renaming Selma (AL) Bridge Picking Up Speed Despite Opposition

  1. I am of two minds about renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

    1. If nothing had ever happened here, I’d say rename it right away. Paint over “Edmund Pettus” on the bridge itself with “John Lewis” and be done with it. It’s an interesting example of period bridge engineering, with almost perfect historic integrity. Even if nothing had happened here, it would be eligible for NRHP listing.

    2. However, this was the site of a major event in American history, one of the most significant to happen on a bridge. In that regard, it ranks with Old North Bridge in Concord MA. In 2015, this bridge was nominated for “Bridge of the Year” on Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”. The “Edmund Pettus” name on the bridge appears in many of the photos from 1965, and from the 50th anniversary commemoration in 2015 with President Obama.

    I would like to suggest a compromise. Officially rename the bridge. Erect signs on the road approaching the bridge designating it as the “John Lewis Memorial Bridge”. Erect a large statue of Lewis next to the bridge. But leave the painted “Edmund Pettus Bridge” on the bridge itself, as a museum exhibit. John Lewis’ great legacy was fighting against what Pettus, a slaveholder and KKK member, represented. That supreme irony and defiance by Lewis and the the freedom marchers in 1965, attempting to cross a bridge named for a slaveholder, only to be beaten and bloodied, is a vital part of history that should not be lost. I would not like to water down John Lewis’ accomplishments by painting over what he vanquished, especially since those battles are unfortunately being fought anew today.

    Liked by 1 person

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