Edmund Pettus was a Confederate soldier, Klansman, and U.S. Senator. It’s an irony that the bridge named for him became a landmark for black rights.
Fifty years ago today, peaceful civil rights marchers on that bridge were met with unspeakable violence. It’s not ancient history; I remember it; this tells us how much has changed – how much can change – in a short time. (Short in the grand sweep of human events.)
I think about that bridge often. Those marchers knew what was coming. But none ran away. Courage is not a lack of fear – only a fool would have been unafraid in that march. Courage is going ahead, doing what one must do, in spite of the fear.*
One who did was John Lewis. John Lewis had already been seriously beaten, more than once, during the “freedom rides” to integrate bus travel. It didn’t deter him; he was badly beaten again on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Lucky to be alive, today he’s a Congressman. I’m proud of an America whose Congress includes a John Lewis.
Of course America has not ascended to perfection; it’s always a work in progress. We’ve just had the report on Ferguson, documenting how its black citizens are systematically victimized by the police, in fact, milked as cash cows. Not long ago I wrote of how costly it is to be poor in America. I should have added, especially when black; Ferguson is Exhibit A.
Yet the Edmund Pettus bridge marchers did achieve a lot. America’s saving grace is democracy; the power of the vote is the ultimate power. When, as a result of that 1960s movement, southern blacks got the vote, it changed everything. Today, the state with the highest number of black elected officials is Mississippi.
* It’s easy to pontificate on a blog; much harder to face a billy club. I’ve never been tested like that. But at least I know enough to appreciate what it means to live in a peaceful society free of such trials – for most of us, at least.