From Edmund Pettus to John Lewis Bridge Now!

I am not a fan of cancel culture. Hegel once said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” He exaggerated, though it is true we don’t learn much. We need to look the ugliness of the past (and the present!) in the eye rather than sanitizing it or we won’t learn anything worth learning. More importantly, extremists caught up in antifa, BLM, and cancel culture moments are handing Trump a huge campaign issue. If Trump is reelected, not a damn thing extremists are doing will matter.

John Lewis in 1965
There are, however, times in which cancel culture is justified. The symbolism of a mule-drawn wagon bearing the body of Representative John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is profound. Lewis was a decent man, a champion of civil rights, and a victim of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of 1965, when he and 600 marchers tried to cross the Alabama River and into Selma.

Who was Edmund Winston Pettus? The short answer is that he was a racist. That doesn’t tell us much, nor does the first line you read in most online biographies: “a U.S. Senator from Alabama from 1897-1907.” It’s not pretty, but most white people were racist well into the 1960s and beyond; that’s why there was a civil rights movement and why John Lewis tried to cross the Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Edmund Pettis
As for Pettus (1821-1907) being a “U.S. Senator,” that’s almost a joke. Pettus grew up in Alabama, where his family owned slaves. Young Edmund was an ardent supporter of slavery. Pettus fought in the Mexican War (1846-48) and briefly moved to California–just in time to help exterminate most of the Yuki natives who had the audacity to leave their reservation. He wasn’t there for the infamous Mendocino War of 1859 in which troops finished the job, but he would have applauded it. (Today there are fewer than 250 full-blood Yukis left.) He moved back to Alabama in 1853 and beat the drums for secession, though ironically the region around Selma was mostly opposed to it. When the Civil War began, he gleefully joined the Confederate army.

Pettus was captured when Vicksburg fell, but the Union foolishly released him in a prisoner exchange. He was immediately promoted to brigadier general and sent to Tennessee. He also took part in unsuccessful attempts to repulse Sherman’s March to the Sea until he was put out of commission by a leg wound that some have claimed was self-inflicted. He was again jailed, but pardoned after the war.

Caroline Randall Williams, gt. gt. granddaughter of Pettus
Pettus falls into the category of unrepentant traitor. As an Alabama Democrat–back then, the Democrats were civil rights opponents–he supported the infamous Black Codes, the collective term given to scores of laws across the South immediately after the Civil war that sought to disenfranchise and deny civil liberties to ex-slaves. Pettus then became an outspoken opponent of Reconstruction. When it ended in 1877, he became the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Alabama had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the lynching of African Americans. We have no evidence that Pettus actually took part in these, but as Grand Dragon it’s inconceivable he did not know about or sanction them. He remained a Klansman for the rest of his days. Like many white Southerners, his racism did not quell his lust for black women. He fathered a mixed-race child, probably via rape. (A black woman bringing charges against a white man under Alabama’s post-Reconstruction laws would have been unthinkable.)

Peach of a man, right? It didn’t prevent Pettus from becoming a U.S. Senator. Bad history articles will tell you that Pettus was “elected” to the U.S. Senate in 1897 by “defeating” James Pugh. Not quite. Pugh was no prince either, but Pugh "lost" his renomination to the U.S. Senate courtesy of party leaders. Until the 17th Amendment was enacted in 1913, citizens did not choose U.S. Senators; they were appointed by individual state legislatures. That of Jim Crow Alabama placed Pettus in Pugh’s place.

Pettus served until his death in 1907. Try finding anything significant he did during his decade in the Senate. Nonetheless, in 1940 the state of Alabama slapped Pettus’ name on a bridge. I’d like Pettus to be remembered–as a traitor, war criminal, racist, and hypocrite. Put up a museum display for future generations to ponder in disgust. As for the bridge, there is but one sane thing to do. It is time for the John Lewis Bridge to span the telling of a far more heroic past.

Rob Weir   

1 comment:

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