SELMA, Ala. - The death of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis has sparked a national debate over the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- a site of history, but one that’s named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader.
Lewis led hundreds of marches across the bridge during the civil rights movement.
In 1965, Lewis helped lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Activists organized the march to demand equal voting rights for all.
Civil rights activist Joanne Bland was 11 years old when she marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Lewis over 50 years ago.
“The name to me exemplifies what happen on that bridge in 1965. It’s a symbol of freedom for everybody and it’s also is a symbol of victory. What happened on that bridge changed the face of America,” Bland said.
On “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama state troopers attacked marchers on the bridge; dozens were hurt.
The bridge is named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and KKK member. Now, over 500,000 people have signed an online petition to change its name.
Still, Bland said the name of the bridge should remain the same.
“Every time a group of people walk across that bridge for voting rights, he’s rolling in his grave. That may not make sense to a lot of people, but it makes sense to the people of Selma and the people who were on that bridge that day,” Bland said.
However, Selma resident Columbus Mitchell said something needed to change. “They need to put a plaque up there telling who he was if they’re not going to change the name; that he was a Confederate general, that he was a Klansman, so that people can judge him for who he was -- not for what the bridge symbolizes, because the bridge symbolizes freedom,” Mitchell said.
Across the country, Confederate monuments have come down in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Selma tourism manager Lydia Chatmon said the removal of monuments was different than changing the name of the historic bridge.
“Those monuments, the names of schools, those are easy changes. Those are different changes because that wasn’t the site where people like John Lewis were attacked, but the Edmund Pettus Bridge was,” Chatmon said.
She added that changing the name of the bridge could hurt tourism in Selma.
“People come to walk on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They don’t come to march across or take pictures, selfies, on any other bridge other than the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Chatmon said.
However, changing the name of the bridge would be difficult because of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. Under the act, the state of Alabama must approve renaming historical monuments that are 40 years or older.
“It was like 600 people there... what do you do with the other names?” Bland asked.
She said John Lewis wouldn’t have wanted anyone to be left out.
“He understood that he was not the only one, he wasn’t on that bridge by himself,” Chatmon said.
The list of those calling for the bridge to be renamed also included Pettus’ great-great-granddaughter. She said naming the bridge for John Lewis would mark a symbol of progress.