As Americans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March in Selma today, a little-known fact is coming to the fore. The bridge where the march occurred is named after a KKK grand dragon.
That’s right. The Edmund Pettus Bridge—one of the most hallowed places in America’s civil rights history—was named for the man who led the most notorious white terrorist group in Alabama, starting in the late 1870s. The bridge was a huge engineering improvement over the previous structure, and legislators at the time wanted its name to be symbolic. Says John Giggie, who teaches southern history at the University of Alabama, there’s no mistaking the message they wanted to send. “They wanted to brand [the bridge] with this vision of the South as…a world dedicated to white supremacy.” (See NPR’s “The Racist History Behind the Iconic Selma Bridge.”)
Currently, the youth group “Students Unite” is circulating an online petition to rename the bridge. But even that may be more attention than the Pettus name deserves. For the name that matters—the name that prevailed, that will always be tied to Selma, and that will go down in history—is Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fifty years is a long time to hold onto a memory. So much has been forgotten about the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. But the tragic unfolding of that moment should be carved deeply in both our individual as well as our national consciences. It was vicious, obscene, despicable. Gut-wrenching and incomprehensible. It brought men to tears and women to their knees—around the world. The Dallas Examiner summarizes the day:
“As the marchers began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge,…they were met by police and mounted officers dressed in riot gear. Marchers paused for a moment then proceeded onward. The town’s sheriff warned the demonstrators to turn around and head back. The activists continued their march. The lawmen then attacked them with tear gas, beat them with billy clubs and whips, and trampled them with their horses—all while spitting on them and yelling racial slurs.
“Throughout the country, television stations interrupted shows to broadcast the devastating violence, while newspapers published photographs and articles of the horrifying attack on the marchers. The brutal incident would soon be known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’”
Many people—white and black—went to Selma to show support for King’s cause and to join his second attempt to reach Montgomery. But as the protesters crossed the bridge that Tuesday, they were again met by state police officers. King halted, knelt to pray, and then retreated, concerned for the safety of his followers. That night, a group of segregationists beat a protester, a young white minister, to death.
Eventually, two weeks after Bloody Sunday—after President Johnson had finally put the voting rights issue to Congress and after he had federalized the Alabama National Guard—King successfully led the third attempt to march across the Selma bridge. His original group of 600 protesters had grown to 2,000. And after walking some 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields along the way, those protesters reached Montgomery on March 25.
DID WE DO GOOD?
So here we are, fifty years after Selma and 150 years after the Civil War. In an ideal world, racism in this country would be eradicated by now. But in the aftermath of both Selma and the Civil War, we erred. We erred in thinking a few good representatives passing bold new legislation would fix our national sickness. We erred in becoming lazy and thinking the battle for equality was won.
Mostly, however, we erred in thinking laws could change hearts. They can’t, they don’t, and they haven’t. Instead, our laws for equality have fueled a resentment that, coupled with pre-existing racism, has intensified the problem. So, while a sizable part of the nation was ready to embrace a black president, a smaller but more impassioned part was vehemently and destructively opposed.
Today, the racial intolerance in our society has become seemingly insurmountable. But overcome it we must. And the only way to do that is by exemplifying truth and justice at all times. For it’s not laws that change people’s hearts. It’s the everyday living of good people that creates change. It’s the words, interactions, and examples—the deeds of people like you and me.
A lifelong communicator, I'm pretty sure I came out of the womb talking. But with no siblings to chat and play with, I learned to express myself in writing. My subsequent birth as a politics junkie came while I watched my father, a career Marine, sob uncontrollably over Kennedy's assassination. Intuitively, I knew the world would never be the same, and I should pay attention. So I did.
Now, some 50 years later, I find myself dumbfounded by the trajectory of American politics and the prevalence of ignorance, bigotry, hate, and violence. I started Two Cents of Sense, hoping to help change that trajectory and to promote progressives' conversation, knowledge sharing, and actions.