Saturday, March 7, 2015

Civil War Saturday Special Edition - The Bridge

You could say it is only a bridge.  Built between 1939-1940, it opened on May 25, 1940 and carries some 17,000. vehicles a day over a river on a U.S. Highway. People walk across it, too.  When they do, they walk in the footsteps of history.

I am not a stranger to walking across bridges.  

I don't know why, but bridges have always fascinated me, and I enjoy the experience of walking across one.  Sometimes, for me, crossing a bridge can be a transition.  I cross a bridge right before entering the downtown where I work five days a week, and crossing that bridge symbolizes the transition from the personal me to the professional me.

Other walks are personal accomplishments.  Last year, I completed a walk on a long bridge in Charleston, South Carolina which I could not complete the year before.

And then there are the bridge crossings that change history, ones I did not make.

On March 7, 1963, about 600 civil rights protestors started out in Selma, Alabama on the way to  the state capitol, Montgomery.  Their intent was to protest a police shooting, one that killed a black civil right's activist by the name of Jimmy Lee Jackson.  It was a Sunday, and they attended church services before setting out on their march.  These were non-violent protestors, intent on appealing for help from the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace.  Besides protesting the police shooting of an innocent man, their aim was to obtain the right to vote guaranteed by our Constitution since the end of the Civil War but denied them for almost 100 years.

Governor George Wallace did not intend to help them.

The marchers walked, two by two, on the sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the bridge that opened in 1940 and still stands today, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama.  Once they were on the bridge, they would be leaving Selma and the Governor could step in with state troopers.

When you approach the bridge, the name Edmund Pettus Bridge is prominently displayed on the arch where you start to cross.

Edmund Pettus was a lawyer, a Confederate general, a United States Senator and later, a Grand Dragon of a white supremist organization called the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK.  The KKK first formed right after the Civil War, in 1866. It is thought of as a Southern organization that did whatever they could to keep people of color terrified and "in their place" as second class citizens.  In fact, the organization was active in many parts of our country, including, especially in the 1920's, where I live in upstate New York. 

The naming of the bridge after Edmund Pettus was deliberate.

Governor George Wallace gave orders for the marchers to be dispersed, and they were beaten and gassed in a violent police action that horrified many in the United States.

If you wish, you can watch some of the painful minutes, in a 6 minute clip available on You Tube that also includes footage from one of the commemoration marches from a past year.   The violent part starts about 2 minutes in.

In one of many ironies, the ABC Television network broke into a movie called Judgement at Nuremberg, a movie about a post World War II war crimes trial, with a bulletin to report about the violent end of the march.

They deployed 40 canisters of tear gas, 12 cans of smoke, and 8 cans of nausea gas, and began chasing the marchers back across the bridge. (Major Cloud later claimed that Sheriff Clark set off the first canister of tear gas by mistake.) The troopers and the mounted posse pursued the fleeing marchers all the way back to Brown Chapel, beating people as they went. - See more at:
56 of the marchers ended up in the hospital.  One, a man by the name of John Lewis, suffered a fractured skull.  The march was aborted on what is known as Bloody Sunday, but, in the end, partially due to what the nation witnessed this day, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

John Lewis has been a Congressman for many years, and spoke today at ceremonies at the Edmund Pettus bridge commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  The President of the United States spoke, too.

There is a growing movement to rename the bridge after John Lewis, which, due to the non political nature of this blog, I will not comment on. 

The work of March 7, 1963 is not finished.  But, one day, I intend to travel to Selma and walk across that bridge.  I want to hear the footsteps and feel the courage of those who walked before me. When mounted and armed police gathered on the other side of the bridge, the marchers did not hesitate to march into history.  They did not turn back. 

Thanks to the courage of those protestors, we live in a different world today.


  1. Thanks for the summary of this event. Ironically, my hubby and I were just discussing this and also wondering how or why things have begun going downhill again with race relations in our country.

  2. thanks. i get enlightened with new information every-time i visit your blog

  3. It's so sad that people have to suffer to achieve any change in status. I don't know if I could believe in one thing enough to march across a bride knowing I'd be beaten for my action.

  4. I love bridges, too, Alana. Fascinating bit of history here. You always make these little glimpses into history very interesting.


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