There is a common complaint among conservatives that African Americans should just “get over” slavery. In fact, I think that they have gotten over it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, systemic oppression of African Americans is much more recent than that, and it continues to this instant. What I think is that southern whites need to get over the Civil War. And the rest of us need to get over pandering to their hurt feelings over having lost their treasonous rebellion. I’ve discussed the issue a number of times. For example, No More Confederate General Bases! And, Southern Pride Rotting Our Republic.
With the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we have yet another example of this problem. Edmund Pettus was not on the right side of history. He was a Confederate general in the Civil War — and very much in favor of slavery and the Confederate cause. And like almost all of those guys, after gleefully committing treason against his country, he was welcomed back by that very same country. He went back to the life he had before the war. And eventually made it into the United States Senate (when it was still a corrupt appointed gig). God bless the US, because if you are rich and white, it doesn’t matter what you do — they will treat you like a hero.
But the other notable thing about Pettus is that in 1877, he became Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. And this was no secret. In fact, when the bridge was named after him in 1940, this was probably a selling point. It is part of that whole sick southern inferiority complex that claims that only things Confederate constitute the true soul of the south. And for 75 years, the name of a bigot and a traitor has been displayed proudly on that bridge. Perhaps it is time to change the name.
This morning, Jenée Desmond-Harris at Vox reported on a group of students who are trying to do just that, Inside the Fight to Strip a KKK Leader’s Name From Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. It is about a Change.org petition, Remove Selma’s KKK Memorialization: Rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The message is clear, “It’s time for the state of Alabama, the city of Selma, and the National Park Service to remove a KKK leader’s name from the historic bridge.” Of course, this isn’t the first time such a request has been made and nothing has changed yet.
I think this really ought to be an issue for whites — but I say that as a white person. I know that power concedes nothing without a demand. But is there no shame among us? Must we be beaten over the head about every obvious offense? The name on that bridge should make every white person cringe. And trust me, I know what many people will say, “You want to hide our history!” But that’s not it at all. I am fine with our history — it is what it is. But I have a major problem with celebrating men of history like Edmund Pettus.
Indeed, Tony W Harris of the Alabama Department of Transportation made exactly the same “history” argument. And a white resident of Selma said, “I think it’s going to be more divisive than unifying.” But I think it is really just a matter of people accepting the fact of past wrongs. Bloody Sunday will always be associated with the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And changing the name of the bridge would be a nice continuation of that — an acknowledgement that treasonous KKK leaders are not people we honor.