John Lewis Said DON’T Rename the Pettus Bridge. Here’s Why:

Yesterday I published what I thought was a mildly-worded post stating my preference for not renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

In saying that, I was following what I believed was the stated view of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose passing is being marked across the country this week — just as I had actually marched behind him across the Pettus Bridge on the historic march to Montgomery in 1965.

But to judge by some of the comments the post evoked,  saying this was tantamount to admitting that I had really been an undercover Ku Klux Klansman & hardcore white supremacist back then and all along.

Unless, many said, I demanded that the bridge be renamed for Lewis, right now, I was unmasking myself as a stone racist and a supporter of every evil up to and including the Nazi holocaust.

John Lewis

Good grief.  Shaking my head, I asked, almost in despair: “WWJD”??

That is, What Would JOHN [Lewis] Do?”

Fortunately, this is not a question made unanswerable by his passing. John Lewis told us what he would do, in no uncertain terms. 

He did it in July of 2015, along with Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, whose congressional district includes Selma.

And here is what he (and she) said, in their own words:

Rep. Terri Sewell

“The Edmund Pettus Bridge symbolizes both who we once were, and who we have become today. The name reflects the fact that this bridge was built in the cradle of the old Confederacy and that Edmund Pettus was a very significant man of his era—Confederate general, U.S. Senator—and yes, a member of the Klu Klux Klan.

Renaming the Bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it —the good and the bad. The historical context of the Edmund Pettus Bridge makes the events of 1965 even more profound. The irony is that a bridge named after a man who inflamed racial hatred is now known worldwide as a symbol of equality and justice. It is biblical—what was meant for evil, God uses for good.

Rose petals were strewn along the bridge today.

The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was born from the injustices suffered on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Bridge itself represents the portal to which America marched towards a brighter, more unified future. The name of the Bridge will forever be associated with “Bloody Sunday” and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, not the man for whom it was named.

The honor guard finishes transferring the casket to a hearse for travel to lie in state at the Alabama capitol.

America is not a perfect union. Rather our democracy is constantly evolving as each generation challenges its ideals and values, pushing us forward to greater equality and inclusion. From the fight for racial equality, to the struggle for gender equality and to our current quest to end discrimination based on sexual orientation – the history of America has been a journey from struggle to redemption. With each new generation, we are given new opportunities to eliminate the divisions that separate us.

We can no more rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge than we can erase this nation’s history of racial intolerance and gender bias. Changing the name of the Bridge would compromise the historical integrity of the voting rights movement.

Edmund Pettus

We must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist for without adversity there can be no redemption. Children should be taught the context of the events that unfolded on the Bridge, and why its name is emblematic of the fight for the very soul of this nation– the democratic values of equality and justice.

Symbols are indeed powerful. Keeping the name of the Bridge is not an endorsement of the man who bears its name but rather an acknowledgement that the name of the Bridge today is synonymous with the Voting Rights Movement which changed the face of this nation and the world.

We must resist the temptation to revise history. The Edmund Pettus name represents the truth of the American story. You can change the name but you cannot change the facts of history. As Americans we need to learn the unvarnished truth about what happened in Selma. In the end, it is the lessons learned from our past that will instruct our future. We should never forget that ordinary people can collectively achieve social change through the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence.”

I couldn’t, and didn’t, say it better.

Last week, Rep. Sewell added an important postscript to this message:

“[Rep.] Sewell and many of her Democratic colleagues, like U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, said the best way to honor Lewis would be restoring provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.”

That sure makes sense to me, rather than continuing to spread discord and division over a name on a bridge –which, however it might be changed, won’t register a single voter.

So never mind what I said yesterday. We’ll get back to the bridge later, maybe. Meantime, how about passing the John Lewis Revived (and even stronger) Voting Rights Act. I can’t think of a catchy acronym based on that, but so what. Let’s follow John Lewis’s advice again and get in some “Good Trouble” to make that happen.

If this post is agreeable, please pass it on.

2 thoughts on “John Lewis Said DON’T Rename the Pettus Bridge. Here’s Why:”

  1. Chuck,
    I agree with you. I can also attest to the fact that you are not a Nazi, or a White Supremicist, or a racist – not that you need my testimony.
    From what I understand, John Lewis did not want the bridge renamed because he wanted to make sure people knew what the bridge represented in history. This is the risk we face when we mess with history. As bad as some of it is, it is important that it remain with us to remind us who we don’t want to be again. I saw the march across the bridge on TV when I was 10 years old. It stays with me today. Besides the horror of that attack, it remains in my memory because it is the Edmond Pettus Bridge. I fear what happened there will be forgotten under another name, even one as illustrious as John Lewis’.

  2. Thee speaks my mind, friend. One who was there too, farther back in the column but still beaten that 1965 Sunday.

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