When the nation's first black president steps onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge to honor the marchers beaten there 50 years ago, he'll be standing on a structure that's at once synonymous with the civil rights struggle and a tribute to a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.
The latter fact had all but faded from local memory until recently, when a Selma student group launched an online petition to rename the landmark bridge.
During his 50th anniversary address Saturday, President Barack Obama will be flanked on one side by a new historic marker commemorating "Bloody Sunday," when white police beat demonstrators marching for black voting rights on March 7, 1965.
The sign offers no details about Edmund Winston Pettus, a Confederate general and U.S. senator who lived in Selma after the Civil War. The Encyclopedia of Alabama, an online database sponsored by the University of Alabama, Auburn University and the Alabama Department of Education, says Pettus held the title of grand dragon of the Alabama Klan in 1877 — an assertion that's questioned by some historians.
As the "Bloody Sunday" anniversary approaches, a student group in Selma is petitioning to rename the bridge, whose twin metal arches soar above the murky Alabama River. The online petition, addressed to Selma Mayor George Patrick Evans and to the National Parks Service, has been up for about two weeks. It does not propose a new name for the bridge.
John Gainey, executive director of Students UNITE, a racially integrated youth group that began the petition, said having a white supremacist's name attached to the city's most visible landmark illustrates Selma's deep racial divisions a half-century after the marchers were beaten at the bridge.
"They're responsible for too much death and misery. We don't need to honor them," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran civil rights leader. "I'm with the kids. Let's change it."
However, Selma historian Alston Fitts doubts Pettus had anything to do with the KKK. Although the city was a hub of racial animus in the 1960s, Selma was known as a "safe place" for blacks aligned with liberal Republicans after the Civil War during Reconstruction partly because of a lack of Klan activity, he said.
Pettus' views on race were widely known during Reconstruction. In July 1871, when Pettus testified before a congressional committee investigating the Klan, he made it clear he believed whites, not blacks, were the victims in the post-Civil War South.
Michael Fitzgerald, a history professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, said he hasn't found "persuasive evidence" that Pettus was a Klan officer or even member, but he said Pettus was "almost certainly" involved with the White League, a later terrorist organization.
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-- The Associated Press