SELMA, Ala. (WSFA) - What’s in a name? That depends on historical perspective when it comes to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-District 7, is throwing her full support behind the name-change effort mere weeks after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests and outcry across the nation, there is no denying that this moment is different; our brothers and sisters – black and white – are crying out for bold change," Sewell said.
Supporters of a name change say it’s time, and they have an online petition with more than 112,000 signatures to back it up. Others, though, aren’t so sure that’s a good idea.
“I do believe this moment is different,” Sewell, the only African-American member of the state’s Congressional delegation, said Tuesday. "People of all colors coming together crying out for bold change.”
Edmund Pettus was a Confederate general who settled in Selma after the Civil War. He was reportedly the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The bridge bearing his name was dedicated in 1940, some 30 years after his death.
But it would take another 25 years before the name and images from that span would be seared into American history with the events of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
Former Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders tried five years ago to have the name changed in the Alabama Senate but the House put the brakes on it and it went nowhere. Sanders said by phone he doesn’t feel vindicated by the latest movement, only encouraged.
“But I do feel that more people are becoming educated and more people are moving in the right direction,” said Sanders.
Jo Ann Bland, for one, prefers to leave it alone. At just 11-years-old, she was among the original foot soldiers on that day, thought she was not among those attacked.
“Changing the name of that bridge won’t change hearts. At this point, we need to change hearts. What happened on March 7, 1965, was domestic terrorism," Bland said. "What happened was the result of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. That was the most significant piece of legislation in the last century. If you change the name, you change the meaning of what we did.”
A name change isn’t as simple as it sounds, either. It is a costly move, especially when you factor in all the marketing materials and signage. “Print media is quite costly now,” said Sheryl Smedley of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information.
Tourism leaders say travelers spent $87 million in Dallas County in 2019, up 14 percent from the year before. Many of them came to see the bridge, walk across it to step back in time to imagine that day in 1965 when Alabama State Troopers beat marchers trying to pass over the bridge on their way to Montgomery.
Pettus is long gone, buried in the older section of Live Oaks Cemetery in Selma. But could his name on the bridge be far behind?
Sanders says it would take an act of the state legislature to change the name. Gov. Kay Ivey has referred all inquiries to the state attorney general’s office, which has not responded to requests for comment.
“There is no denying that Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site where foot soldiers shed their blood in the name of equality and justice for all Americans—is a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement," Sewell said. “While I believe the historical significance of the bridge transcends the man for which it was named, I also acknowledge that in this moment everything must be on the table, and that includes renaming the bridge.”
The petition that’s circulating calls for renaming the bridge after U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Troy native who represents a Congressional district in Georgia.
Lewis suffered serious injuries on “Bloody Sunday” and, despite battling cancer, crossed the bridge in March for the annual reenactment.
“My primary focus is on extending the rights of the living and not on the transgressions of the dead," Sewell said. “The voices on the streets of the nation cry out to be heard and they demand real change. Removing Confederate memorials and renaming buildings is not the change they seek, but it is an important step in the process towards racial healing. We must be willing to do the easy things so that we can focus on making transformational change.”
Sewell said this moment in time requires the removal of any and all impediments to make systemic changes in policing, education, housing, economic policy, and more.
“We must confront and reject Alabama’s racist history and come together to implement the bold changes needed to ensure our nation finally lives up to its promise of equality and justice for all,” Sewell added.