In 1821, a child was born in Limestone County, Alabama, the youngest of nine, who would win a certain renown. Then it would turn to infamy.
The boy went to public schools, college, studied law, and became a lieutenant with the Alabama Volunteers in the Mexican-American War. Then he moved to Northern California, where he fought with a paramilitary group to remove the Yuki Indians. He returned to Alabama and served for several years as a state judge unimpeded by his support for slavery. When the Civil War came, he helped organize the 20th Alabama Infantry. He became a major, then a lieutenant colonel. He was captured in 1862 and exchanged for Union soldiers. He was captured again in 1863, but escaped. Promoted to colonel, he commanded the 20th Alabama in the Vicksburg Campaign, was captured again, exchanged again and promoted to brigadier general. He commanded troops in the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 and the Carolinas Campaign of 1865, was captured yet again, and paroled. When the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox, he was pardoned.
Returning to Alabama, he practiced law in Selma. He was chairman of the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention for decades. In 1877, as Reconstruction faltered, he became the grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, which aimed to keep Blacks from voting. In 1896, the Alabama Legislature sent him to the U.S. Senate – the last Confederate general to serve there.
In 1940, a new, four-lane, steel-and-concrete bridge high across the Alabama River was named for the general and dragon of old days not half-forgotten: Edmund Pettus.
Twenty-five years later, more than 500 civil rights marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on foot, on their way from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, on U.S. Route 80 – the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The marchers were demanding no more than the right to vote. They were met at the other end of the bridge by Alabama State Troopers and posse men.
The marchers stopped to pray and were set upon. A trooper with a billy club fractured the skull of one of the two leaders, a 25-year-old native of Pike County, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers, a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, who bore those scars until the day he died, last Friday, of cancer at 80.
That was John Lewis, the 17-term congressman, who crossed paths with Pettis’ legacy and took a beating that helped muster support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 2011, the Pettus Bridge was deemed “functionally obsolete, meaning the design is not suitable for its current use,” though it remains open. In 2013, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. This two-step process seems almost like a metaphor for the effort by some to reckon with the racism of the past and the way it affects the present.
Lewis felt the past catching up when he saw the killing of George Floyd, which made him cry, he told “CBS This Morning” in June. “People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said. “It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice.” Asked about the Black Lives Matter protests, he said, “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive ... There will be no turning back.”
There are calls again to rename the Selma bridge for John Lewis. That sounds all right. Pettus can’t escape this time, but he should, not from history’s verdict but our notice. We won’t forget Lewis nearly died trying to cross a bridge that once honored a Klansman.