Sunday, March 15, 2015

The man behind the Selma bridge

Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times, Friday, March 13, 2015.

It's an iconic image from American history, a visual reminder of one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement — the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the Alabama River at the edge of downtown Selma. But who was Edmund Pettus and what is his connection with the African-American struggle for equality?

Pettus was very much a man of his time, a successful white Southerner who rose to the highest levels of American society. Born in 1821, he attended a small college in Tennessee, married and became a lawyer who was both a solicitor and a judge during the early years of his career. In 1847 he served as a lieutenant with the state militia in the Mexican-American War and then went west to California to fight Indians, before returning to Alabama to practice law in a small town southwest of Selma.
Pettus was a strong supporter of slavery and in 1860 when secession became the mantra of the South he became a prominent proponent. When Alabama left the Union, he helped to organize the 20th Alabama Infantry, fought in several major battles, including the defense of Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta. He was taken prisoner more than once and was wounded at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina, less than a month before the end of the war. Some have suggested that his wounds were self-inflicted, but there is no clear evidence. Ultimately he rose to the rank of brigadier general.
His older brother, John J. Pettus, served as governor of Mississippi during the Civil War. Refusing to accept the end of the Confederacy, he planned to flee to Mexico with his distant cousin, Jefferson Davis, but when Davis was captured, John Pettus went into hiding, dying in Arkansas two years after the war, still a wanted fugitive.
As for Edmund Pettus, his fortunes following the war were far better. He was pardoned by the federal government and returned to his Alabama law practice. There he headed the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention for much of the late 19th century. He also joined the Ku Klux Klan, serving as the "Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama" during the final days of Reconstruction in 1877.
Then, in 1896, with the support of his fellow klansmen, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, a staunch racist who campaigned against equality for African-Americans. Re-elected to a second term, he died in 1907, the last Confederate brigadier to serve in that chamber.
For generations men like Pettus had been revered in the South. Their names can be found on public buildings, highways and bridges like the one in Selma. Yet men such as Pettus were responsible for many of the problems that have plagued the South.
It was their arrogance that led to secession and a war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, North and South. It was the enormous destruction of that war that altered the Southern economy, taking it from the richest region in the nation before the war to the poorest for the next hundred years.
It was these men who were unwilling to cooperate with efforts to reconstruct the South into a region where all human beings were treated equally. Instead, they organized and provided the leadership for terrorist groups like the klan, using violence to disenfranchise African-American voters and create an environment of fear and bitter divisiveness throughout the South.
And, it was their promotion of racism that prevented the working class — black and white — from understanding that if they worked together, rather than hated each other, they could overcome the poverty that plagued the South for most of the Jim Crow era.
Today, looking back at Southern history, there is a great deal of irony in knowing that an unrepentant rebel, a man who adamantly supported the institution of slavery, should have his name forever connected with the African-American struggle for freedom and equality.