Fifty years after the events of Bloody Sunday transpired on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — a bridge named after a former Ku Klux Klan leader — the Alabama Senate voted on a resolution to change the landmark’s name.
Ever since civil rights activists marched on Selma in 1965, the bridge has remained a symbol of white supremacy in a town that was once embroiled in a fight for (and against) African Americans’ enfranchisement. After a multiracial group of student activists launched a campaign to change the name of the bridge — Pettus was a Confederate general, a United States senator and the Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK — Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma) sponsored a resolution to rename the site the Journey to Freedom Bridge. On Wednesday, the Senate voted in favor of doing so, but push-back from the House leaves the name’s fate uncertain.
“Edmund Pettus will forever be remembered for the enforcement of laws that prevented African Americans from equal access to education, jobs, political representation, and other benefits of American citizenship,” the resolution says. “50 years after Bloody Sunday and other marches, Selma’s young people gathered over 180,000 signatures over a period of two months in support of renaming the bridge, and this new generation of young people believes that the current name of the bridge is a symbol of the past that must be changed.”
As previously noted by Slate, at the time of the bridge’s construction, the landmark was considered a symbol of modernity. However, naming the bridge after a person committed to the institution of racism also symbolized an effort to maintain the old social order. As University of Alabama history professor John Giggie told Smithsonian Magazine, “[t]he bridge was named for [Pettus], in part, to memorialize his history, of restraining and imprisoning African-Americans in their quest for freedom after the Civil War.”
Decades after Bloody Sunday, memories of Selma still haunt marchers who confronted police officers on the bridge that still bares Pettus’ name. “I can remember vividly how frightened I was as that little girl, even though I was determined to be a part of it,” Sheyann Webb Christburg told ThinkProgress, on the 50th anniversary of Blood Sunday. “But when we got midway across the bridge, I looked down and I saw hundreds of policemen with billy clubs, state troopers on horses, the dogs. My heart begun to beat really fast. When we refused to turn, they started beating people down, tear gas burst in the air, the horses trampled the crowd as if we weren’t even human beings.”
Still, many Alabama lawmakers remain unmoved and reluctant to change. According to House Rules Chairman Mac McCutcheon (R-Huntsville), members of the House think the name is inextricably linked to the historic monument, and, therefore, shouldn’t be renamed. McCutcheon says the resolution will not be brought to the House floor before Thursday, when the legislative session is expected to end.