Selma’s Bloody Sunday: the Edmund Pettus Bridge

By Matthew Pennekamp ’15

Forum Editor Emeritus

At first glance, the scene seems a touch wrong: a disproportionate bridge fording a miniscule spit of water. Naked rivets and an understated paint job mesh well with a waterfront graced by those telltale signs of syrupy stagnancy – the shuttered warehouses, the bare-faced brick of buildings long ago surrendered to the elements. But then there’s the sheer size of the thing: trusses that loom too high over a town so small.

Yet, in more ways than one, the Edmund Pettus Bridge has no choice but to loom over the map as well as over our mindsets. As the fiftieth anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday dawns on us, and the old hulking monolith is symbolically crossed by a new generation pledging the credo of “never again,” the structure itself has come into a somewhat less ambient light. Perhaps you have seen the petitions circulating on Facebook or ruminating on the airwaves of NPR – to change the name of the bridge.

This movement’s intent is laudable. After all, Edmund Pettus could at best be described as a man of his times (and with those times being antebellum and Jim Crow Alabama, this assuredly does not count for much) and at worst as a foot-dragging, truculent bigot. Supplementing his lawyerly pay by joining the ranks of the U.S. Army during the Mexican War, his unit was tasked with paramilitary tactics against the Yuki tribesmen of California (tenders of the historical bar know all too well that cocktails containing “paramilitary” and “white-supremacist” are the sort to turn the stomach). Then came the great moral litmus test of civil war, and Pettus donned his uniform once more.

Perhaps finding the fight against Billy Yank more taxing, Pettus had the dubious distinction of being captured four times in the course of the war and was even rumored to have hastened his final surrender by turning his gun on his own leg – proof that, while being on the wrong side of history is rarely funny, to be so with such a flourish of ineptitude can illicit a chuckle or two. After returning to his native Selma, he again took up his law practice – such as it was – while moonlighting as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan (the word “daylighting” might be more appropriate; to be an out-and-about member was certainly no hindrance for the politically ambitious). Eventually, he rose to the U.S. Senate, dying in 1907 as “the last of the Confederate brigadiers.”

What if, then, the bridge was rededicated to honor the likes of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr. rather than its cretinous original namesake? After all, a MLK Highway or Street exists in nearly every American metropolis; what’s one more piece of infrastructure? However, to rename the bridge would be to plant a flag of victory where, unfortunately, victory does not yet exist. One need only rip some of the noteworthy macro-headlines from last year’s press – Ferguson, Eric Garner, Donald Sterling, the piecemeal dismemberment of voting rights – as well as the score of micro-repugnancies flying under our collective radar to recognize the ghost of Pettus inhabiting each.

To put it another way, if the ceremonial march that will, if we are being honest with ourselves, need to be re-trodden in ten or twenty years’ time is done under foot of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge, then where is the symbolism in that? With a struggle as important and unimagined as King’s still ongoing, the last thing white America needs is to be furnished with yet another reason to feel complacent – except instead of actively seeking one, it would be given its rationale on silver service by people with only the best intentions. 

More importantly though, sometimes the need exists to keep the residue of our sordid past on full display – to evoke the notion once touched upon by Mississippi’s favorite son, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The iconoclast of course has his role to play and the blank slate mentality its utility. But when these attempt to expunge our living history – names, words, buildings – before the lessons are gleaned from them in full, then such people and mentalities are at fault; they have gone too far. The same impulse preventing me from calling for the dynamiting of the Auschwitzs and Buchenwalds or, more relevantly, every plantation hiding evil behind a stately aesthetic, also stays me from wanting to see a Pettus rechristening.

The notion of dialectical thinking has existed since the days of Plato, and it retains every iota of relevance now as it did in antiquity. Thus, when the average schoolgirl, probably inundated in an unremitting Niagara of feel-good historical commentary, has to construct her own mental bridge between everything she’s been taught and the Klansman’s honorific, then the thing we can hope for – indeed, the thing we must hope for – is that she will notice the glaring discrepancy between the ill symptoms of a country she thought quarantined in textbooks and its living, breathing, modern contagions.

For that reason, the bridge – name and all – is important.

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