Editorial: John Lewis, Terri Sewell defend keeping Selma bridge named after Edmund Pettus
By Reps. Terri A. Sewell (AL-07) and John Lewis of Georgia (GA-05)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an iconic symbol of the struggle for voting rights in America, and its name is as significant as its imposing structure. The historical irony is an integral part of the complicated history of Selma -- a city known for its pivotal role in the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
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.
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 "Blood Sunday" and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, not the man for whom it was named.
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.
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 bares 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.