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Pettus Bridge

In: Historical Events

Submitted By msisay
Words 2180
Pages 9
Minelik Sisay
Professor Greene
Pettus Bridge as a Place of Memory
Selma, Alabama became the focus of the Civil Rights Movement as activists, such as John Lewis and Dr. King, worked to register black voters. Martin Luther King’s voter registration movement worked on a city-by-city approach, gathering national attention. Other civil rights leaders, such as John Lewis and William Hosea, worked more locally in the most dangerous areas of the Deep South for African-Americans. While both worked to register voters, King’s method is better characterized as an attempt to change the public discourse about race in this country, while John Lewis’ method attempted to change public action. Led by John Lewis and William Hosea, “Bloody Sunday” occurred as a result of the fight for freedom and equality. In order to make some headway against centuries of legally sanctioned racism and discrimination, the United States government began to promote and support the Civil Rights Movement.
The relatively scarce attention the march in US history textbooks is quite disappointing in a sense that it illustrates an event that is not fully depicted. The battle fought on the bridge, in a way, is being fought till this day. Voter registration laws, though not as harsh as Jim Crow literacy tests, create barriers that restrict minorities from having the opportunity to vote. By surveying a few of the patterns of inequality that still prevail in many sectors of American society, this essay will explore the significance of the bridge and what it represents. The annual march held in recognition of “Bloody Sunday” promotes a sense of hope for a better future and efforts to correct the effects of persistent discrimination. Ironically, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a Confederate general and U.S. senator, but holds as strong a memory in the black community. The bridge evokes emotions of extreme courage and bravery brought about by the foot soldiers who looked at death in its face and asked it to dance.

Black Americans have had to wage a continuing struggle for political, economic, and social rights in the United States, a battle not yet won. Periodically, they have patiently managed to propel the issue of their civil rights from the periphery to the center of American political life. The 1960’s witnessed a form of nonviolent black protests that arose with compelling force, particularly in support of voting rights. Grassroots movements, such as Citizenship schools and Freedom Summer, had good intentions but efforts to register Black voters were met with tremendous bloodshed. The march on Pettus Bridge itself is a culminating moment in the voting rights movement that lead to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Unfortunately, the surroundings around the bridge are disappointing in that there are buildings that are in horrible condition. Seeing the broken down houses and poorly paved roads contradicts the role of the Pettus Bridge as a place of memory. It demeans the achievement of the foot soldiers. In an era of increased intolerance towards citizens, we need to continue the discussion about our multicultural society, recognizing commonalities before we list differences. Skepticism has withered the belief in a democratic national community and in its reach toward a better world. To many, including Dr. King true integration was a spiritual reality. It reflects the belief in the sacredness, righteousness, and integrity of all citizens and requires nothing less than a change of heart. However, few researchers have focused on the Pettus Bridge as a place of memory. Nearly 50 years ago, John Lewis along with several other protestors stood at the brink of a violent upheaval in their attempt to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. Hundreds of foot soldiers, along with Lewis grounded one foot in patriotism, the other in faith, and planted both in the name of nonviolence. After a seemingly endless climb, Hosea Williams and Lewis continued methodically down the slope in ghostly silence, broken by the snorting of several horses, as they marched towards freedom. After covering roughly about one hundred yards, a quietly spoken order ahead caused great unrest among the marchers as they saw an unnerving sight. Scanning from left to right, they could see state troopers were positioned along the sidewalk with bug-eyed goggles and elongated rubber snouts. An officer proceeded forward and barked, “You are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church.” Lewis wanted to say a prayer but the officer deprived him of the opportunity. Instead, he shouted,- “Troopers advance.” The blue line of massive masks moved forward with slow, irregular steps, and concentrated to get to the front ranks of the marchers. With nightsticks held chest high, the troopers pushed progressively in an orderly uniform until the mass of troopers burst to the rear. Troopers were relentless, toppling citizens at accelerating speed. Instantly, silence gave way to high-pitched shrieks. All hell broke lose. White spectators waving encouragement is beyond human comprehension.
People were on the verge of facing death. John Lewis sank to the ground quickly, felled by a truncheon blow to the head. Horses’ hooves clattered on the pavement and raised the volume of the pulsing shrill voices as they rammed through demonstrators. The sharp sound of gunshots emerged signifying the presence of tear gas. Canisters landed behind a moving wave of chaos that had not yet registered in the back where marchers still knelt in prayer. From a tangle on the ground appeared a woman who came stumbling out to the side pursued by a masked trooper, while being stuck by two others. Horsemen and masked officers knew of no limitations, attacking women relentlessly and beating several protestors black and blue.
The aggression and disarray on Pettus Bridge represented passionate struggle to achieve a fundamental right. Would the African American voting rights be settled in the streets, the courts, the legislature, or may God forbid, or not at all. Dr. King’s swift appearance that Sunday night pushed the movement and focused on gathering drama. He planned to lead a new march. That Monday, King arrived at Brown Chapel to address a crowd of nearly a thousand people, vowing that the threat of death, alone, could not stop them. King’s push toward another march shook the presidential administration violently and forced them to act quickly. President Johnson was stuck in a dilemma – enforce their power and test the sovereignty of Alabama or dismantle Dr. King and his march. Stopping the march had the potential to ignite a fire that would be impossible put out. It may be controversial, but Dr. King’s appearance was essential to maximize the efforts of the Pettus Bridge.
Judge Johnson commented on the protest organized by King by saying, “I think it’s outrageous what’s on TV. It looks like that man’s in charge of the country and taking it over.” Without any question, King had invaluable connections. King went back and forth with Johnson’s administration, which demanded that he call off the march. However, King was in too deep and requested tangible signs of support from Washington on the voting rights movement. The balance of nerves seesawed as both sides exchanged ideas and outright threats. Eventually King gave in and agreed to call off the march. However, the next morning he changed his mind pleading, that he had come too far, the point of no return has be crossed.
The court injunction issued by Judge Johnson did not even phase Dr. King to prolong the march; he continued as scheduled. The day the nation anticipated soon arrived, and journalists from across the nation crowded along margins attempting to capture history in the making. As the marchers began to rise from the pavement, singing and marching with their heads held high they encountered a blessing. A trooper barked, “Troopers, withdraw!” The way to Montgomery was clear, no officer with a barricade stood in the way. King could not comprehend the situation, thinking it was either a trap or a phenomenal parting of the Red Sea.
Invited to keep moving forward, Dr. King ordered, “We will go back to the church now!” A mixture of confusion, joy, and disappointment filled the air, as priests were grateful for avoiding a violent confrontation with the troopers and unrest grew among the young protests who saw Dr. King as a weak and inefficient leader who betrayed them. Whether Dr. King continued to pursue the march would have been significant, but such a decision cannot be determined. However, his decision to go back can be evaluated and is shown to have given light to the movement. The demonstrations released waves of political energy that eventually gained the support of the president who shortly after signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Winning the right to vote would not, in itself, improve the basic conditions of life faced by the masses of black people, particularly those in urban ghettos. But leaders such as Dr. King considered this attainment to be essential! Foot soldiers such as Mr. James Armstrong believed that the worst thing a man can do was nothing. Every ballot signifies a non-violent sense of accomplishment and consent to be involved politically. Symbolically, the inability to vote made many feel that they were less than citizens and that their powers politically were miniscule. Of central importance was that the White House itself was willing and eager to back the voter registration target. Presidents such as Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all professed the view that the freedom to vote was the utmost effective means of achieving equality. They believed that a strong and effective civil rights legislation could not be passed until African Americans could reach their goal and effect Congress.
Selma was no doubt a turning point in the nonviolent movement. A tide of resentment and disbelief rose to challenge the overall direction of American politics, contesting the Founding Fathers language of freedom! Till this day the Pettis Bridge symbolizes momentous change that instigates several protests that arise today. President Obama recognizes this bridge as worthy as he walked the across the bridge not only to evoke the memory of the bridge, but also to raise consciousness.
Since the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution, voting has been the voice of democracy. Our Fathers would be disappointed of our voting system today because it is deeply flawed. Barely half of all Americans vote. Over the past century with the occurrence of women suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement, our nation expanded the right to vote and knocked down numerous obstacles to full electoral participation. However, the election of 2012 seemed to interfere with that momentum instantly.
States across the nation have taken severe measures to enact an array of new laws that make it difficult for millions of eligible Americans to vote, especially minorities. Numerous states require voters to show government-issued photo identification that target several minority groups since it is difficult to achieve that type of identification. Other states have removed early voting, which was a popular innovation that promoted a copious amount of citizens to vote early avoiding lengthy lines during election.
These restrictions fall mostly on young, minority, elderly, and low-income voters. Though not as harsh as the Jim Crow laws, they still inhibit voters to cast their ballot providing obstacles that citizens cannot seem to hurdle. These waves of restrictions may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election, favorably for the Republican Party.
It is the objective of citizens to fight and protect out voting rights. If Dr. King were alive, he would push the fight from ballot security to voting machine security (Florida) and voter list maintenance. Through litigation, advocacy efforts, and educational provisions individuals need proceed and progress forward to protect their right to vote.
States need to collaborate and eliminate barriers between eligible American citizens and the right to vote. States need to open new pathways to adapt to the modern voting system. With the advancement of technology, innovations should be developed such as electronic voting. Also, restoring the voting rights of individuals with past criminal convictions is essential and is a necessary step towards retrieving the right to vote. The world is evolving and so should the manner in which we elect our officials.
The battle on the Pettus Bridge was fought in the preservation of voting rights amongst citizens of the United States of America. The efforts of the foot soldiers must not go in vain, for their lives were taken to provide the right to vote for countless minorities. The ability to vote exists as one of the most honorable and cherished Constitutional Rights that many have fought for, marched for, and lives have been taken for over the centuries. The value of our freedom has been far too high for any citizen to take voting for granted, and the consequence of not casting a ballot is too great for any citizen, both black or white, to ignore. By casting out vote, we implemented our unique opportunity exercise a power to elect the best man or women to serve the people.

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