The Edmund Pettus Bridge is a symbol of freedom all over the world. It is also a symbol of voting rights and democracy. However, the very name stands for the exact opposite. Symbols are powerful.
Symbols enter into our conscious and subconscious without our screening them. Then they impact us without our knowing it. The effects manifest themselves in manifold ways that we don’t even recognize. The name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a symbol. Symbols are powerful.
Until recently many knew the name, but few knew who Edmund Pettus was. Now that we know we must protect all those who come in contact with the Bridge, especially our children. We must change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Symbols are powerful.
Who was Edmund Pettus? He was many things. The most important for this discussion is Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist organization that killed, maimed and terrorized African Americans for nearly a century. It also terrorized Catholics and Jews. The Ku Klux Klan was an instrument of widespread violent oppression. Pettus used his positions as a Grand Dragon, U.S. Senator and other designations to take the right to vote from African Americans and others.
In 1940, the Bridge in Selma was named after Edmund Pettus, a symbol of that violent oppression. The name chosen was no accident. It was not just to lift Edmund Pettus, who died 33 years earlier. It was a symbol chosen to send a message to Black people to “stay in their place” or face violent oppression and even death. Symbols are powerful.
Every time we say the words ”Edmund Pettus Bridge,” we lift two very powerful but opposite messages. Edmund Pettus sends a message of violence, terror, oppression, White supremacy, the destruction of the right to vote and death. The Bridge sends a message of nonviolence, freedom, equality, voting rights for all, democracy and life. We cannot serve two masters with one symbol. Symbols are powerful.
As Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Edmund Pettus was key in crushing the right to vote of African Americans. This was accomplished through terror, intimidation, violence and death. The Alabama Klan terrorized African Americans who tried to vote. Pettus was a powerful proponent of White supremacy and Black inferiority all his life. He continually used his political, legal and other positions to violently oppress African Americans.
Would anyone in Alabama stand for one of its most important monuments to be named after any modern-day terrorist? I would be shocked if the answer to this question was yes. At Penn State University, the Statue of Joe Paterno was removed. He had not oppressed anyone. He failed to aggressively push a terrible abuse done by another. His name was removed from everything even though he had been one of the greatest college coaches in the history of football. Yet we allow a Bridge to be named after the head of an organization that murdered and terrorized people for nearly a hundred years. Symbols are powerful.
Also, Bill Cosby was accused of multiple oppressive crimes but was never charged. Yet his name was taken off of everything at Temple University, Spelman College and other places. For some, the name contradicted everything it once stood for. Only symbols destructive to Black people are allowed to stand in the face of oppressive history. Symbols are powerful.
Now that people know who Edmund Pettus was, think of the confusion our children will experience when they see the name Edmund Pettus on this famous Bridge. Do we want them to wonder whether we are lifting the vision of terrorism, White supremacy, destruction of the right to vote and death or the vision of freedom, the right to vote, equality and life? Symbols are powerful.
On the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Bloody Sunday, many people came to Selma to lift the symbol of freedom. However, others came to lift the symbol of racial terrorism. At the Foot of the Bridge stood a large billboard with a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the First Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He sat astride a warhorse. The words, “Keep the skeer [scare] in them” was written across the billboard. At the Commemoration, members of the Klan, inspired by the example of Edmund Pettus, passed out Klan literature. This, mind you, was in 2015, not 1905. Symbols are powerful.
When we know better, we must do better. It is well within our ability to forge a powerful unified symbol by changing the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Symbols are powerful.
Hank Sanders has served as a member of the Alabama State Senate since 1983. Alabama State Senator Henry “Hank” Sanders, of Selma, was inspired to become a lawyer at the age of 12 after reading an article about Thurgood Marshall. His pursuit to follow in Marshall’s footsteps has been punctuated by awards and achievements that would make the Supreme Court Associate Justice proud.
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with thanks to Senator Hank Sanders for his open reflections, enduring spirit, and caring commitment.