Most students of American History know that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama was the site of “Bloody Sunday” 55 years ago during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. But few history books ever chronicle the life and misdeeds of Edmund Pettus, pictured below.
Pettus, born in 1821, was a lawyer and soldier who later rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, Pettus resumed his law practice in Selma, Alabama and later became a judge, U.S. Senator, and the Grand Dragon for the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Pettus died in 1907 and in 1940, during the height of the Jim Crow movement, the formerly wooden two lane bridge into Selma, Alabama was replaced by a steel bridge named in his honor.
On March 7, 1965, the Pettus Bridge was forever etched into the annals of history when a group of civil rights protesters, led by then 24-year old John Lewis, were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers who were determined to prevent their 80 mile march to the state capital of Montgomery. Two weeks later, the same march was completed with no push back from state authorities due to Federal intervention.
Five years ago, after the brutal murder of South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his parishioners at Emmanuel AME by young Neo-Confederate Dylan Roof inspired a round of public dialogue about the Confederate flag and monuments in the public square, then Congressman John Lewis suggested during an interview with CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer that the Pettus Bridge should retain its name to serve as a reminder of who he was–and how much was sacrificed on that bridge in 1965.
But as America still reckons with its slavery and Jim Crow past in 2020, most are finally realizing that bridges, statues, and monuments named for former Confederates and Klansmen were done to 1. Terrorize and mock Black people yearning for basic equal rights; 2. To honor what men like Pettus fought for and believed, which was white supremacy and the enslavement and degradation of Black people.
As I often argue, the horrific misdeeds of men like Edmund Pettus must be studied in books or at museums where context and truth can be discerned by the careful student. But just as there are no monuments in public plazas to honor Adolf Hitler or the Nazi High Command in Berlin, or Josef Stalin and his Politburo in Moscow, there should be no monuments to honor men who enslaved, terroized, and killed to maintain an unequal racial hierarchy in America.
To that end, 100 years from now, students should be able to learn all about lawyer, Rebel General, Judge and Grand Klan Wizard Edmund Pettus in a book, while learning about a true American patriot and hero–Congressman John Lewis–each time they walk across a bridge renamed in his honor.