Bridge name shows more than racism
Edmund Pettus Bridge represents overcoming adversity
This past Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965 civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, as part of their journey toward voting rights and registration for African-Americans. When marchers reached the bridge, they were met with heavy opposition from local police and Alabama State troopers. Activists were attacked with tear gas, beaten with billy clubs and chased back into town. On that same date year, President Obama was joined with thousands of individuals, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) who led the march on Bloody Sunday, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge, to commemorate the march. During his speech, Obama related the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the present, making mention of events in Ferguson saying, “The march is not yet over, the race is not yet won.”
The 21st century is a century of change. As inactive as millennials may appear to be on the surface, there are still a great number of young people who are go-getters, determined to fight and prevent the wrongs of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Students Unite, a grass-roots organization comprised of young adults and college students, has proposed renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Winston Pettus was a lawyer, a U.S. senator and a confederate general during the American Civil War. He was also a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Given Pettus’ background and the event’s of Blood Sunday, the bridge represents a strange dichotomy. The name itself can be associated with America’s deplorable history of racial injustices. But the actions that played out across the bridge on Bloody Sunday and on March 9, 1965 symbolize the willpower of a people determined to change atrocious and oppressive laws. Their triumph proves that change is possible and that the bridge itself is now a symbol for freedom and equality.
There have been times in history when changing names or symbols was warranted. In a post-Nazi Germany, the removal of swastikas from common usage was a necessity. The symbol evokes not only feelings of anger, but of years and years of memories of maleficence. The name “Edmund Pettus” does not evoke the same visceral reaction. Few know who he is and what he stood for. The decision of whether or not to change the name of the bridge should be left to the people of Selma, not a group of do-gooding students. As outsiders, it’s impossible for any of us to know how they feel about the name of the bridge without asking. Altering the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a noble, albeit misguided, quest for modernity. The bridge is simply one of many physical structures in the nation that essentially pay homage to racists and bigots who despite negative intentions, helped to shape the nation. Many of the buildings on Rutgers’ campus are named after men who have committed questionable acts — Henry Rutgers himself was a slave owner. Today, however, the University stands as a flagship for diversity, welcoming students of all creeds, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In most situations, it’s difficult to apply current societal morals and values to concepts of the past. You can’t change history, but you can transform its meaning. That’s exactly what the civil rights activists of 1965 did when they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers pushed past both physical and idealistic hostility to then, literally, walk over a structure named after a man who belonged to an organization designed to oppress African-Americans. Changing the name of the bridge in an attempt to honor these activists, in effect does them a disservice by diluting the magnitude of their actions. The decision to change the name of the bridge rests with the people of Selma and Civil Rights activists of the 1960s. They, and they alone have the right to once again change the history of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.