It is a moving photograph (no. 5) by Saul Loeb. Saturday, March 7, 2015. The 50th anniversary of the first Selma to Montgomery March, known as “Bloody Sunday.” The front row includes John Lewis, President Obama’s family, former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura.
But in large letters above all of them is “Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
It is true that a bridge by any other name would still be a bridge, just as Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet that “a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Act II, Sc. 2) A bridge by any name is a good for society. A bridge helps us, as Simon & Garfunkel wrote in 1970, “over troubled water.” Still, the name must be changed.
I am not in favor of erasing our history by changing the names of all that offends us. Much in our history offends us. If we were to destroy all, we’d be like the Taliban destroying the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001, or ISIS destroying Nimrud in recent days. And there would be a never-ending debate over names. But some names stink. There is no room for Stalingrad or Leningrad or Redskins or Squaw Valley… or Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On these pages on February 17, Jeffrey Lord reminded us of the background of one Edmund Pettus. When new in 1940, the bridge was named after Pettus (1821-1907) precisely because he had been a Grand Dragon of the KKK in Alabama in 1877 and opposed the post-Civil War constitutional amendments. Those who named the bridge were putting our African-American citizens “in their place.” Pettus was not just another Confederate general or just another U.S. Senator from a former Confederate state after whom things were named.
The bridge could be renamed after the martyrs of the Selma marches: Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, or James Reeb. But which one if not all three? There are many other Alabamians who could be considered for this honor, including:
(I would include Ralph Abernathy, but he has a couple roads named after him. Fred Shuttlesworth already has the Birmingham Airport named after him. Helen Keller appears on the quarter and has a statue in the U.S. Capitol.)
Or maybe “Selma Marchers Bridge.”
There is an online petition to rename the bridge at change.org.
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