Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Bridge Too Near


The movie Selma and the fact of the 50 year anniversary of the Selma marches has focused attention on that shameful episode in modern history. It also featured a bizarre connection, but more of that later.

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Coincidentally back on 11 January I had written about Selma in the context of explaining some of the lyrics of the 1965 protest song Eve of Destruction. The following paragraphs are from that Bytes post:

“Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama”:

The reference to Selma, Alabama is to:

  • "Bloody Sunday”, the shooting of an unarmed civil rights protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama State trooper, James Fowler, inspiring the Selma to Montgomery marches. A grand jury declined to indict Fowler in September 1965. On May 10, 2007, 42 years after the crime, Fowler was charged with first degree and second degree murder for Jackson's death, and surrendered to authorities. On November 15, 2010, Fowler pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail, but served only five months due to health problems which required medical surgery. Perry County commissioner Albert Turner, Jr., called the agreement "a slap in the face of the people of this county". 

  • The three 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches which led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark achievement of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. All three protest marches were promoted as attempts to walk the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery in defiance of segregationist repression. 

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Also coincidentally, 3 days after posting the above, I received a Smithsonian email (I am a subscriber) with a collection of photographs taken from within the marches. They can be viewed at:

This photograph from that article shows the depth of prejudice, hate and hostility at the time.


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As noted above, the purpose of the marches was for the marchers to peacefully walk from Selma to the capital at Montgomery, a distance of 86 kilometres/54 miles. The marchers wanted voter registration, the right to vote. something that seems fundamental, as of right, to us today.

There have been suggestions that Dr Martin Luther King deliberately provoked a violent police response and that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was selected as a symbol of racial injustice and oppression.  It matters not.  What happened at the bridge cannot be excused, not even in part or in the slightest, irrspective of whether provoked.

When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge 0n 7 March 1965 during the first of three marches, they were attacked by police with guns, clubs, tear gas, dogs and horses. The marchers who were beaten and gassed were unarmed and non-resisting men, women, old people, young people. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday.





John Lewis, shown above being beaten, was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a leader of the march. He suffered a fractured skull.






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On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, US President Barak Obama joined hands with some of the original marchers to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 40,000 attended the commemorative march.

President Barack Obama, fourth from left, holding hands with Amelia Boynton, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," and John Lewis, also beaten (see above photograph), now a member of Congress in Georgia, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Obama stated:

"In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history -- the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher -- met on this bridge. It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.”


What if the those carrying out the thuggery in 1965, their supporters, the victims and their supporters, friends and families could have seen 50 years into the future at the same spot, to see the first black President of the United States of America, in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, declare:

The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before. 
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate. 
Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example

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So what is bizarre about all of this, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post?

Edmund Winston Pettus (1821 – 1907) was an American lawyer, soldier, and legislator who served as a Confederate General during the American Civil War, during which he was captured three times. After the war he was a US Senator for Alabama.


(Just as an aside, does anyone else thing that Pettus and Mr Miyagi resemble one another . . .


Pettus was also a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

Pettus’s election to the US Senate was attributable to his virulent opposition to the constitutional amendments following the Civil War that elevated former slaves to the status of free citizens.


The bridge was declared a National Historic Landmark on March 11, 2013.

A website – change.org – seeks signatures to an online petition to change the name of the bridge so that it no longer honours the name of a confederate racist and KKK Grand Dragon. It is at: https://www.change.org/p/rename-selma-s-edmund-pettus-bridge-marchon#petition-letter



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