While I am usually in favor of keeping statues and other public monuments to horrible racists up and then interpreting them, naming major buildings or public works projects is a whole other thing. That’s certainly true of Selma’s Edward Pettus Bridge. I didn’t know who Pettus was before this weekend. Turns out that if you want something named after you in Alabama, being a powerful racist is a good way to do it.
“Everyone knows the bridge is famous for the march and Bloody Sunday, so the idea that the name of the place where all of this happened represents something so contrary to all of that really bothers us,” said Students Unite’s executive director, 25-year-old John Gainey.
The discrepancy is striking, but the life of the bridge’s namesake has never been a secret. The Washington Post reported that when the bridge was constructed 75 years ago, Pettus’ legacy was well known, and the span of the highway was named “for a man revered locally as a tenacious Southern leader.”
It’s also right there on the Federal Highway Administration’s website in its description of the structure, which was built in 1940 and carries traffic across the Alabama River: “It had been named after a Civil War General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan who served in the United States Senate from 1897 until his death in 1907. He was the last Confederate General to serve in the Senate.”
Obviously, this should be renamed the John Lewis Bridge. That’s not going to be easy to accomplish for many reasons, including because it will become a conservative cause not to change it.