An effort is underway to rename a landmark battlefield of America’s civil rights movement after one of its most beloved warriors.
As of Monday morning, the “Rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Rep. John Lewis” petition on Change.org had more than 475,000 signatures toward its goal of 500,000.
Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia who died Friday at the age of 80, was gravely injured in a March 1965 civil rights protest march that sought to cross the Pettus Bridge. The violence used to crush the march gave the day the name “Bloody Sunday.”
“It’s far past time to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon that nearly gave his life on that bridge,” said Democratic political consultant Michael Starr Hopkins, who launched the petition. “Edmund Pettus was a bitter racist, undeserving of the honor bestowed upon him. As we wipe away this country’s long stain of bigotry, we must also wipe away the names of men like Edmund Pettus.
“The Edmund Pettus Bridge, now a National Historic Landmark, was the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers during the first march for voting rights. The televised attacks were seen all over the nation, prompting public support for the civil rights activists in Selma and for the voting rights campaign. After Bloody Sunday, protestors were granted the right to continue marching, and two more marches for voting rights followed.”
The movement has some heavyweight support, including music legend Paul McCartney.
“Sad to hear the news that civil rights legend John Lewis died yesterday,” the former Beatle tweeted Saturday. “He was such a great leader who fought with honesty and bravery for civil rights in America. Long may his memory remain in our hearts. How about renaming the famous Pettus Bridge…”
Sad to hear the news that civil rights legend John Lewis died yesterday. He was such a great leader who fought with honesty and bravery for civil rights in America. Long may his memory remain in our hearts. How about renaming the famous Pettus Bridge… pic.twitter.com/1iDVa1T2LI
— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) July 18, 2020
Musician and actor Stevie Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, also voiced his support for the change.
Hopefully the Edmund Pettus Bridge will be renamed the John Lewis Bridge. It should have happened while he was alive. Why we would have anything named after the grand dragon of the ku klux klan is way beyond me.
— Stevie Van Zandt (@StevieVanZandt) July 18, 2020
Pettus was a Confederate general and early leader of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis joined others who wanted to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest their lack of voting rights.
The march was broken up violently by police, and Lewis suffered a fractured skull. Although marchers were turned back, televised images of peaceful protesters beaten and bloody helped swing public opinion in favor of the civil rights movement.
Although Lewis received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama in 2011 in honor of a lifetime of activism, the Pettus Bridge march has always been a flashpoint of his life and work.
Last April, Lewis sat with The Washington Post and spoke about the march and its context.
“We were on our way from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation and to the world that the black people and the black belt of Alabama wanted to register to vote, to participate in the democratic process,” he said. “People had to pass a so-called literacy test. People were told they could not read or write well enough. People were asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jellybeans in a jar.
“There was African American lawyers and doctors, college professors, teachers, who flunked their so-called literacy tests. We had to do it.”
But the marchers did not get far, he recalled, before the way was blocked.
“We got on the other side of the bridge. There was a group of state troopers standing, and the major said — the Alabama State Police, ‘This is an unlawful march; it would not be allowed to continue. I’ll give you three minutes to disburse and return to your homes or to your church.’
“And one of the guys walking with me, leading the march, by the name of Hosea Williams, said, ‘Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray,’ and the major said again, ‘Troopers, advance.’ And I said, ‘Major, may I have a word?’ He said, ‘There will be no word. Troopers, advance.’ You saw these guys putting on their gas masks.
“They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, tramping us with horses.”
Lewis was among the injured.
“I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went from under me; I thought I saw death; I thought I was going to die. And to this day, I don’t know how I made it back across that bridge to the streets of Selma, back to the little church where we had left from,” he said.
“But I do remember being back at the church. They asked me to say something, and I stood up and said, ‘I don’t understand it, that President [Lyndon] Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people who only desires to register to vote.’
“And I was hospitalized with 16 other people, and a group of nuns took care of us.”
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