Perhaps you've never heard of Edmund Winston Pettus, a Civil War General, U.S. Senator, and in 1877, the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
But you know his bridge.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which straddles the Alabama River, marks the site of one of the major turning points in the Civil Rights Movement, the Selma to Montgomery march. On March 7, 1965, a day that would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday," some 600 marchers began the 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights. They didn't make it far. Six blocks after they departed Brown Chapel, under the steel arch of the Pettus Bridge, they were violently clubbed and tear gassed by Alabama state troopers. U.S. Representative John Lewis, who led the march with Hosea Williams, stated in a recent interview: "I thought I was going to die on that bridge." Lewis sustained a severe fracture to his skull.
Two weeks later on March 21, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led 3,200 marchers from Selma all the way to the state's capital. By the time they reached Montgomery on March 25, the number of marchers had swelled to 25,000.
On the capitol steps, Dr. King addressed the crowd:
We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore...They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around."
Five months later, on August 6, 1965, the marchers got their wish. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Two years ago, on March 11, 2013, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Director of the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis designated the bridge along with 12 other sites, as national historic landmarks, Jarvis stated, "From the Civil War to civil rights, to the struggles and accomplishments of women, African Americans and Latinos, these sites highlight the mosaic of our nation's historic past."
The designation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a historic landmark does highlight our nation's struggles and accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement. But its current name continues to reflect a belief in the subjugation and segregation of African-Americans, implicitly condones the violence of racial bigotry, and detracts from the moral significance of the bridge in American history. The black, block letters hanging from the Bridge's steel beam diminish the plight of the people who suffered there.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. On Saturday, March 7, President Obama, President George W. Bush, and nearly 100 members of Congress, including Rep. Lewis, remembered Bloody Sunday in Selma. March 21 will mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the safe and successful march across the Pettus Bridge led by Dr. King.
There's no better time than now to honor the sacrifices, the bravery and the commitment of those who rallied for voting rights. Pettus died in 1907 at the age of 86. The bridge, built in 1940, has held his name for 75 years. It's time to give it back to the people for whom it belongs, whose blood, sweat and tears fell to its deck on Bloody Sunday, just so they could cast a ballot. For this reason, the bridge should be named for John Lewis and Hosea Williams, the two marchers who led the first attempt on March 7 across the Pettus Bridge. Changing the name of the Pettus Bridge to the Lewis Williams Bridge would appropriately salute and cement this powerful month, and this monumental place, in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
"We've come a long way," Dr. King declared upon reaching the Montgomery capitol building half a century ago. Indeed, we have. And to commemorate the struggle, and the distance, the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Park Service must re-christen the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a new name - the Lewis Williams Bridge.