Dropping ‘Pettus’ Is a Bridge Too FarRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, voting rights, public history, Selma, Ku Klux Klan
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, forthcoming in October.
Edmund Pettus was a white supremacist who served as a general in the Confederate army and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. John Lewis was a civil-rights warrior who almost died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where state troopers assaulted Lewis during a 1965 protest march.
An online petition to rename the bridge has drawn more than 500,000 signatures, including that of Ava DuVernay, producer of the 2014 film “Selma.” “I’ve just signed a petition about this bridge to dignity as seen in SELMA,” Ms. DuVernay tweeted. “Edmund Pettus Bridge should be the John Lewis Bridge. Named for a hero. Not a murderer. Join this call. It’s past due.”
John Lewis disagreed. “We must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist,” Reps. Lewis and Terri Sewell (D., Ala.) wrote in a 2015 op-ed. “As Americans we need to learn the unvarnished truth about what happened in Selma.”
Unlike the schools and military bases named after Confederates and segregationists, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is central to the story of black freedom in the U.S. We can rename schools and military bases without eroding that larger story. Not so for the Pettus Bridge, which has become a major landmark of the civil rights struggle.
“Keeping the name of the Bridge is not an endorsement of the man who bears its name,” Lewis and Ms. Sewell wrote. “The Edmund Pettus name represents the truth of the American story. You can change the name but you cannot change the facts of history.”
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