By Nathan Mars
To begin with, my father is a high school US History teacher. I’ve always heard that Selma was a big deal, but I’ve never really looked into it beyond being just a Civil Rights march in the South where protesters got beat up. You can’t have a parent who is into US History and not understand at least the basics of some of the Civil Rights protests, but I never really gave it more than a cursory look. For this blog I’ve decided to look a bit deeper into the march itself and the events and environment surrounding it by picking a cultural artifact directly related to Selma, a bridge that the protesters had to cross over to leave Selma on their way to Montgomery.
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had already passed, blacks did not yet have equality with whites in all areas of life. One particularly troublesome difference was that whites had created laws attempting to keep blacks from voting in the South, and often intimidated blacks to keep them from voting. In Selma, only 2% of the black population was registered to vote (“Selma to Montgomery March”), and the police force was especially hostile towards blacks. Civil rights groups had been pressuring courts to force the registrar in Selma to register blacks to vote (Amsitad). The courts agreed with the civil rights groups, but still some whites did everything they could to reduce the number of blacks registering to vote. For this reason, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and other civil rights leaders organized a march to show America how terribly blacks were being treated by the local government and to campaign for voting rights. On March 7, 1965, the unarmed protesters had planned to follow Highway 80 all the way from Selma to Montgomery, a walk of 54 miles (“Selma to Montgomery March”), led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Instead, the protesters were stopped just after crossing the Pettus Bridge out of Selma, where a contingent of state troopers and local police ordered the group to disperse. The protesters held their ground, and then the police force attacked, using tear gas and nightsticks to break up the march. In a picture below, you can see John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, being beaten by state troopers as he kneels on the ground, not resisting but just trying to protect himself just after crossing the bridge and being attacked by the police force. The police force can be seen here advancing towards the bridge, further scattering the protesters. Videos and pictures like this were broadcast across the nation, showing America what was really happening down in the south and how terrible it really was.
But before the protesters got to the state troopers, they had to cross the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge. Edmund Winston Pettus wouldn’t exactly have been marching with the protesters had he still been alive. To begin with, he was a highly decorated Confederate General who joined the Confederacy because he believed slavery was an essential system with blacks being an inferior race, not because of the economics of slavery or state pride as were the reasons of many others in his region. Additionally, he was a Klu Klux Klan Grand Dragon who at least planned the killing and terrorism of blacks, though it is unknown if he himself got his hands dirty (Whack). More than anything, the naming of the bridge was designed to be symbolic. Pettus was also a US Senator who won his election by emphasizing his links to white supremacy groups. Pettus believed that slavery was absolutely necessary for the southern way of life and that blacks were inherently inferior, destined for nothing more than hard work and slavery. It is intriguing, then, that the bridge named after him would be of importance in the civil rights movement.
In 1940, when the bridge was dedicated, local white officials wanted to send a message to blacks that, though they had been emancipated, whites were still superior. The bridge was well-traveled, being on a major road that connected Selma to the larger cities of Alabama, such as Montgomery, and was seen by many at the time of dedication as a symbol of the new, more industrialized south (Peeples). The legacy of the bridge was not forgotten by many older blacks up until the time of the Selma march. To many older people at the time, the bridge was a constant reminder of the hatred many whites had towards blacks. Now, many who live in the area have forgotten who William Pettus was, but to the marchers in 1965, the symbolism was clear. That the march went over a bridge named after a white supremacist is coincidental, as it was the only bridge the marchers could take to get to Montgomery, but still significant and indicative of the climate in the south. It is also interesting that the African American community has managed to transform the bridge from being a hate-filled icon of racial oppression to be a symbol of standing up for the idea of equality for all.
This bridge is an important historical marker to this day because of the march that took place on it. As already mentioned, state troopers were waiting on the other side to break up the march, but the marchers held fast, not scattering until attacked. This attack was one of the key moments that mobilized whites in other parts of the country to take a stand. Many whites outside the South could temporarily tolerate blacks not having entirely equal rights in the South, and figured it would take too much effort to fix the problem. This idea was talked about in class and in the Martin Luther King Jr. reading, in that white people felt blacks should wait it out because the time wasn’t quite right (King, 2). They were on the fence, not really wanting to take action, when suddenly television screens and newspaper headlines were filled with the atrocities that were happening to blacks when they campaigned for equality, and whites couldn’t ignore it. This directly ties in with what we have been talking about in class in that the Civil Rights movement needed blacks and whites to say enough is enough. Events like the first Selma march showed all Americans that change had to come soon, that it was not enough to just wait it out and hope discrimination faded away on its own. Action was needed, and the government needed to talk steps to end de facto segregation. Civil Rights leaders always made certain to emphasize the urgency of action, and Selma is a prime example of that. Blacks needed all restrictions against their freedom to be lifted, and those restrictions needed to be lifted as soon as possible. Voting is one of the primary rights all citizens of the United States have, and so restrictions against blacks voting was depriving southern blacks of their rights as citizens.
Further, the entirety of the Civil Rights movement was important to blacks because it gave them full citizenship. Blacks were closer to having fully protected legal rights, and there was hope there would someday be no differences between blacks and whites. Of course we’ve seen in class that this was not completely the case (Pittman), and minorities are still discriminated against unfairly, but we are at least closer to equality because of the Civil Rights movement and events like Selma. There will always be pockets of racism in America, but it is essential that all people in America continue to do what they can to prevent discrimination.
A few weeks after the march that was stopped by the police, a new set of marchers protected by federalized national guardsmen set out to complete the march, crossing over the Pettus Bridge and marching on to Montgomery. Following the entire incident of Selma, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, removing the restrictions that had been placed on blacks and making it illegal for any law to ever restrict the ability of a group to vote. For blacks, it was another victory on the path to true equality. John Lewis, one of the leaders of the first march and the man seen in the above picture, is now a US Congressman, and is the last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders (Lewis). And to this day, the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge still stands, though there have been several campaigns to change its name to something more pro-civil rights. But all in all, a bridge named after a white supremacist ended up becoming the setting of a major event in the civil rights movement, an event that would cause the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be passed protecting everyone’s right to an unhindered vote.
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