Pettus just a footnote in history

Published 3:11 pm Tuesday, June 9, 2015

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan. (Gasp. I know. A writer that doesn’t love Shakespeare.) But I can’t help but feel that ol’ Billy hit the nail on the head with this one.

No matter what we call a rose, it will be just as beautiful. It will smell just as sweet.

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The name doesn’t really matter.

The same could be said for the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. In case you missed it, the Alabama Senate introduced and voted to pass the resolution last week that requested the bridge to be renamed the Journey to Freedom Bridge. The House elected not to take the issue up.

Sen. Hank Sanders, who led the charge for name change, said the bridge, which has become a symbol of the struggle for voting rights in America, should not be named after Pettus, who is believed to have had ties to the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

I believe I understand his point of view. However, changing the name won’t change history, and I have come to feel it would be a mistake to do so.

Rep. Darrio Melton may have said it best.

“I understand the historical irony of the bridge being named after a former U.S. senator, member of the Confederate and Klan leader, but what was birthed on that bridge has become a world symbol of democracy and the Voting Rights Movement, and that is a beautiful testimony,” Melton said. “We have no choice but to embrace, not erase, our history and heritage as a city. While the bridge carries memories of division, it also holds promises of hope and freedom. Currently it symbolizes our opportunity to move into the future with a new perspective of inclusion. There is no reason to hastily change what has become the cradle of democracy.”

The Edmund Pettus Bridge connects our past to our present.

For that very reason, James Perkins, the first African-American elected as mayor of Selma, opposes changing the name of the bridge.

“Every now and then when you build a monument, it’s good to leave it where it is to remind you from whence you come and where you need to go,” he said.

Lord willing, in about a week, my wife and I will bring home a little girl of African-American and German descent.

That bridge is an important part of her story.

It is the site of a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

There was a time she would have been denied opportunities simply because of her race.

Now I’m not naïve enough to believe that discrimination doesn’t still exist. It does. Things are far from perfect. But because of the bravery of the men and women who marched across that bridge, things are better than they were 50 years ago.

Yes, the journey of those marchers was a journey to freedom, but it took place over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

And when I tell my daughter about those brave people who fought to make sure that she had the same rights as everyone else, the bridge will just be a footnote in the story, because it’s not really about the bridge.

It’s about those people who were courageous enough to stand up for what they believed in. Those men and women who were bold enough to fight for equality. Those folks who reminded us that the color of someone’s skin shouldn’t matter.

People like Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Sheyann Webb, Ulysses Blackmon, Earnest Doyle and countless others.

Theirs are the names that should matter.

Not the name of a bridge. No matter who it’s named after.