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Online Petition To Change The Name Of Edmund Pettus Bridge Gains Wide Support

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is an effort in Alabama to change the name of one of the country's most important civil rights landmarks. In 1965, activists in Selma were met with police violence as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery. Now a petition asking Alabama's governor to change the name of the bridge has gained more than 100,000 names. As Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott reports, a change would be complicated.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Even though the country is in the middle of a pandemic and health officials recommend that people stay home, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma still draws tourists.

COLUMBUS MITCHELL: Because we want those kids to be as uncomfortable as possible.

GASSIOTT: What time of year was it?

MITCHELL: It was actually in March, which was cold.

GASSIOTT: Columbus Mitchell sits at the base of the bridge, telling visitors the history of Bloody Sunday, how those marching from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote were beaten by state troopers. And he tells them about the man whose name is on the bridge.

MITCHELL: A lot of them are just kind of shocked that they found - once they found out that the bridge is named after a Confederate general. But for most people, when they come here, most of them are oblivious.

GASSIOTT: Pettus was also in the Ku Klux Klan, serving as Grand Dragon. And he represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate. After the death last month of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been renewed interest to change the name of the bridge to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who, along with Martin Luther King Jr., led some of those marches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: Six hundred people marched into history, walking two by two down the sidewalk.

GASSIOTT: Civil rights activist Joanne Bland was 12 when she witnessed the march and saw police beat her sister.

JOANNE BLAND: I love John with all my heart, a great man who's done wonderful things. But I don't think it should be named after John, either.

GASSIOTT: Bland, who still lives in Selma, says it's important to keep the Pettus name to show how protesters eventually won the right to vote.

BLAND: One of the events that changed America happened on that same bridge of a Klansman - named after a Klansman. If that's not transformative, I don't know what is.

GASSIOTT: Five years ago, a student group started a petition to change the name of the bridge. This time, the push is coming from outside the community. Lydia Chatmon works with the Selma Center for Nonviolence. She's concerned that renaming the bridge could endanger Selma's tourism economy and a possible UNESCO historical site designation. But she also understands the reasons why people focus on Selma and the bridge when a highly publicized event such as the death of George Floyd happens.

LYDIA CHATMON: Because it was not until America, on television, saw what state troopers did to marchers who were peacefully crossing a bridge, right? It was not until weeks ago when America had to come face-to-face with a video of a man being pressed into the concrete.

GASSIOTT: Back at the bridge, tourist guide Columbus Mitchell says a recent monument preservation law passed by the Alabama legislature would make changing the name of the historic bridge difficult.

MITCHELL: But not saying anything's not possible because people never thought that the Voting Rights Act would be realistic and people won against, you know, the police. They won against everything and was able to accomplish - I would never say never.

GASSIOTT: And regardless of what the name is, members of the community want to make sure that the bridge remains an important symbol of the civil rights movement and continues to bring attention to the small Alabama town.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott in Selma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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