SELMA, Ala. – Thousands gathered in this river city in 1940 to dedicate a new bridge in honor of white supremacist Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader. Just 25 years later, the bridge became a global landmark when civil rights marchers were beaten at its base.
Today, with thousands protesting nationwide against racial injustice, a years-old push is gaining steam to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in honor of Rep. John Lewis, who led the 1965 marchers on “Bloody Sunday.” But the idea is drawing opposition in Selma, including from some who marched with Lewis that day.
Pettus' name has ironically come to also symbolize Black freedom and shouldn't be painted over, some say. Others oppose the move because Lewis was an outsider who followed in the footsteps of locals who had worked to end segregation for years before he arrived. Still others fear a change would hurt tourism in a poor town with little going for it other than its civil rights history.
Lynda Lowery, who was 14 and received 35 stitches in her head on Bloody Sunday, doesn't want the bridge renamed for anyone. She said the span over the muddy Alabama River “isn't a monument, it's a part of history.”
“They need to leave my bridge alone,” said Lowery, 70.
Lowery's younger sister Jo Ann Bland, who also was among the estimated 600 marchers on March 7, 1965, long opposed renaming the bridge. But amid widespread demonstrations since the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, she now tentatively supports renaming the span for local “foot soldiers,” not Lewis.
“John Lewis is my hero; he's been my hero since I was a child," said Bland. “I followed him up on that Edmund Pettus Bridge. But I and John were not the only ones there."
The bridge was named for Pettus, who fought for the Confederacy and was a reputed KKK grand wizard who served in the U.S. Senate at a time when Jim Crow laws gave white people near-total control in Alabama. He died in 1907.