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Nuanced and civil debate over renaming Selma bridge

At a time when statues of various public figures are being pulled down and defaced because the historical figures they honour took actions and espoused views and attitudes that were acceptable in the society they lived in but are discredited today, there is an interesting discussion taking place in Selma Alabama over the possible renaming of a bridge.

With the death last weekend of Rep. John Lewis, who by the time he was 25 had become a symbol of civil rights in the United states has sparked an interesting debate over the possible re-naming of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. It was at one end of this bridge that 600 black men, women and children were viciously attacked by local law enforcement and state police in 1965 as they attempted to march to Montgomery to protest for voting rights at the state capitol. Lewis suffered a fractured skull in the ambush which saw police using whips, teargas, rubber hoses wrapped with barbed wire and billy clubs to thwart the march. The national outcry at the televised brutality sparked the swift passage of a voting rights bill that started to remove the systematic barriers that had been used in the South to deny blacks the vote. The bridge is named for a Civil War General who was also a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

Lewis at the Pettis Bridge in March 1965, just before the police attack
Lewis being bludgeoned by a police officer

Given Lewis’ iconic role in the history of the bridge, there has been a growing movement to rename the bridge in honour of Lewis. At last word, a petition calling for the renaming had attracted over 500,000 signatures. What’s interesting, is that when the issue was first raised five years ago on the 50th anniversary of the march Lewis made it clear that he opposed the name change, writing:

We can no more rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge than we can erase this nation’s history of racial intolerance and gender bias. Changing the name of the bridge would compromise the historical integrity of the voting-rights movement. We must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist, for without adversity there can be no redemption. Children should be taught the context of the events that unfolded on the bridge, and why its name is emblematic of the fight for the very soul of this nation – the democratic values of equality and justice.’

And in a message that addresses the reason why the current wave of cancelling the memory of these public figures is misguided, Lewis wrote:

‘We must resist the temptation to revise history. The Edmund Pettus name (or insert any other name, ed.)  represents the truth of the American story. You can change the name but you cannot change the facts of history. As Americans we need to learn the unvarnished truth about what happened in Selma. In the end, it is the lessons learned from our past that will instruct our future. We should never forget that ordinary people can collectively achieve social change through the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence.’

Even in Selma today sone prominent black activists oppose the name change. Collins Pettaway III, a political communications specialist and a Selma native, said; “The Edmund Petts Bridge is now a staple and symbol of civil rights and voter equity, as well as voting rights. It’s a symbol of hope, of freedom…” Alan Reese, a grandson of the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Reese, a civil rights activist said many residents, including foot soldiers from the movement who are still living, would not consider a name change unless it were inclusive. “I don’t think (My Grandfather’s name) should go on the bridge because I understand it was a collective of people to make that situation happen,” he said.

Alan Reese (L) grandson of the civil rights activist Rev.Dr. Franklin D Reese opposes the name change, pictured with his brother
Collins Pettaway III says the bridge is a symbol of hope

But the important takeaway here, is John Lewis’ own views on trying to erase history that has become unpopular, and what it implies about the extremes of the cancel culture.

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