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'Honor the local people of Selma': Edmund Pettus Bridge moves closer to being renamed

The bridge named after a Confederate general and the site of "Bloody Sunday" could be renamed after the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Selma Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

Lawmakers in Alabama announced legislation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that will let the people of Selma vote on a new name for its most famous landmark, the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The bridge was the site of protests in 1965 over the struggle for voting rights for Black Americans and clashes with police that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

State Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier, a Democrat, announced her intention Monday to introduce the bill. State Rep. Prince Chestnut is expected to announce his support of the bill in the future.

The legislation seeks "to give local people the ability to influence removing the name of Edmund Pettus's name from the bridge and let the people of Selma, including the foot soldiers who risked their lives on the bridge, decide what it should be named,” Sanders-Fortier said in a statement.

Pettus was a Confederate general who was also a leader of the Alabama chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.

Sanders-Fortier said the bill is not just about renaming the bridge.

“This proposed legislation on how to handle the name is a way to honor the local people of Selma who cross the bridge every day, and it gives us time to seek the will of God, not just for the bridge, but for our collective healing," Sanders-Fortier said.

If the bill passes, Selma residents would decide on a new name. Sanders-Fortier's father, state Sen. Hank Sanders, tried to introduce a similar bill five years ago, but it didn't have enough support to make it to an actual vote.

The 2014 film "Selma" introduced a new generation to the events that took place there in 1965. It also inspired political strategist Michael Starr Hopkins to launch a petition to rename the bridge after the Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was part of the Selma march and who died last year.

The landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not necessarily guarantee voting rights as many Black Americans had hoped for. In parts of Alabama, Black people who wanted to vote were still subjected to intimidation, poll taxes and tests with questions that were impossible to answer. In response, Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led over 600 marchers across the Pettus Bridge from Selma toward Montgomery, taking their grievances directly to the state’s Capitol. Marchers were met with violence and Lewis nearly lost his life fighting for equal voting rights.

“The John Lewis Bridge Project is bigger than just the name itself. It was never about solely having John Lewis’ name on that bridge,” Hopkins told NBC News. “It was about reinforcing his message and continuing to spread dialogue of hope, change and persistence.”

Hopkins' petition effort began in June 2020 in response to the rising racial tensions happening around the country. The petition garnered 99,000 of the 150,000 signatures needed within its first few days. The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, was among the signers and called others to join her.

"Sen. Sanders-Fortier has changed the course of history," Hopkins said. "Her deep commitment to healing Selma and belief in truth and reconciliation is the kind of leadership that could be a model for cities around the country. On behalf of the John Lewis Bridge Project, we look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Fortier to ensure the bill's passage — but more importantly, we are prepared to do whatever we can to support Selma’s vision and amplify the voices in the beloved community."

CORRECTION (Jan. 19, 2021, 1:21 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who announced they would introduce a bill in the Alabama Legislature to allow residents of Selma to choose a new name for the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Only state Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier did so. State Rep. Prince Chestnut has not yet publicly supported the bill.

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