Death of black politician John Lewis renews movement in the US to rename symbolic bridge

SELMA, ALABAMA (NYTIMES) – The death of Mr John Lewis on Friday (July 17) has renewed interest in a campaign to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of a turning point in the fight for civil rights.

Named after a former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, the bridge became the focus of national attention March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers beat demonstrators who were marching for black voting rights in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

A photo taken on March 1, 2020, showing US Representative John Lewis addressing marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
A photo taken on March 1, 2020, showing US Representative John Lewis addressing marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Lewis, who was then the chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, helped lead the march and sustained a cracked skull after a state trooper beat him to the ground with a nightstick.

Mr Lewis returned to Selma every year to commemorate the anniversary of the march, whose destination was the state capital in Montgomery.

An online petition created last month to rename the bridge after Lewis has garnered over 400,000 signatures, including that of director Ava DuVernay, whose Oscar-nominated film Selma re-created the Bloody Sunday confrontation.

“One of the most American things to do is to petition your fellow citizens to get change,” Mr Michael Starr Hopkins, who started the petition, said in an interview on Saturday.

The effort to rename the bridge is being driven not only by the death of Mr Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and long-time member of the United States House of Representatives, but also by the protests against racism and police brutality that have followed the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

Those protests have rekindled a debate over statues and other monuments celebrating the Confederacy.

Mr Hopkins, a lawyer and a founding partner at Northern Starr Strategies, a public relations firm, started a nonprofit called the John Lewis Bridge Project to promote the renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the “removal of other existing signs of the Confederacy.”

“We’re working hand in hand with the community in Selma,” he said, “which I think is extremely important because, at the end of the day, while the bridge may be a national landmark, historic landmark, it belongs to the people of Selma.”

The effort to rename the bridge for Mr Lewis has run into opposition from some people in Selma, including some who participated in the Bloody Sunday march.

They say the bridge, under its current name, has become a potent symbol of the struggle for civil rights and voting rights.

“The name Edmund Pettus no longer is about Edmund Pettus from the Civil War, from the Confederacy,” said Mr Collins Pettaway III, a political communications specialist and a Selma native.

“The Edmund Pettus Bridge is now a staple and symbol of civil rights and voting equity, as well as voting rights. It’s a symbol of hope, of freedom. And that has been a name that has passed through generations.”

Mr Alan Reese, a grandson of the Reverend Frederick Reese, a civil rights activist, said many Selma residents, including foot soldiers from the movement who are still living, would not consider a name change unless it were inclusive.

Mr Frederick Reese, who died in 2018, was a member of the Dallas County Voters League, one of the local groups that organised the 1965 voting rights marches in Selma.

“All the things my grandfather did – was born in Selma, raised in Selma, worked in Selma – I don’t feel like his name should go on the bridge, because I understand it was a collective of people to make that situation happen,” said Mr Reese, the chief executive of a foundation bearing his grandfather’s name.

The bridge, which crosses the Alabama River, was dedicated in 1940 and named for Mr Pettus, a lawyer and US senator who was also a decorated Confederate general and a leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

In 2015, a resolution to rename the bridge was defeated in the Alabama House of Representatives.

Ms Terri Sewell, Democratic Representative of Alabama, said in a statement that although she understood the desire to honour Mr Lewis’ legacy, a decision to rename the bridge should be made locally in Selma.

“As a daughter of Selma, I understand the complexities surrounding the renaming of the bridge, and while I personally can think of no better name than that of John Lewis, I ultimately believe the Selma community should decide who it is named after,” Ms Sewell said.

In a statement in which he addressed the loss of Mr Lewis, his long-time friend and colleague who was battling cancer, Representative James Clyburn called for the bridge to be named after Mr Lewis.

“I think you ought to take a nice picture of that bridge with Pettus’ name on it, put it in a museum somewhere dedicated to the Confederacy, and then rename that bridge and repaint it, redecorate it the John R. Lewis Bridge,” said Mr Clyburn, the Democratic Representative of South Carolina.

“I believe that will give the people of Selma something to rally around.”

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