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Why the Edmund Pettus Bridge Must Be Renamed

By Sen. Hank Sanders 

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 sub conscious 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 Klu Klux Klan. The Klu Klux Klan was a terrorist organization that killed, maimed, and terrorized African Americans for nearly a century. It also terrorized Catholics and Jews. The Klu Klux Klan was an instrument of wide spread 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. 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 non-violence, 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 Klu Klux Klan in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, 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.

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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 he 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 a 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 bill board with a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the First Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. He sat astride a war horse. The words, “Keep the sceer (scare) in them” was written across the bill board. 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 to the Journey To Freedom Bridge. Journey to Freedom is an inclusive and unifying symbol. However, it may not be the right name but the current name must be changed.  Symbols are powerful.


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