March 3, 2015; ABC News (Associated Press)
Here’s one we didn’t know, but probably should have. When marchers made their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama five decades ago, they were crossing a bridge named after a Confederate general who was reportedly later a Ku Klux Klan leader.
Recently, a Selma student group, Students UNITE, has created a petition to rename the bridge. Does the new historic marker on the bridge, put up by the state’s tourism commission earlier this year in commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” undo the bridge’s honoring of Pettus? It might, except that at the other end of the bridge is a billboard inviting tourists to “Visit Selma’s War Between the States Historic Sites,” erected by the nonprofit organization, Friends of Forrest. The “Forrest” in question is Nathan Bedford Forrest, another Confederate general, but better known as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
Under the picture of Forrest is the disturbing quote, “Keep the skeer on ’em,” an apparent reference to the full quotation, “Get ’em skeered and keep the skeer on ’em.” That slogan, adopted by Forrest’s men in the Civil War, was not far off from the tactics of the police against the civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
While veteran civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Joseph Lowery agree with the students trying to change the name of the bridge, others are soft-pedaling the issue. Selma historian Alston Fitts suggests that if Pettus was a Klan leader, he was a “pretty lousy” one, given Selma’s politics in the Reconstruction era. A professor from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Michael Fitzgerald, says he hasn’t found persuasive evidence of Pettus’s Klan membership, though he was “almost certainly” a member of the White League, which the AP article called “a later terrorist organization.”
Whether Klan, White League, or all-around white supremacist, Pettus doesn’t seem like the right person to be honored with the bridge that was the site of “Bloody Sunday.” Selma would be well served by renaming the bridge—and getting rid of the Forrest billboard in the process.—Rick Cohen