An online petition that calls for the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma Alabama -- the site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday march when Civil Rights marchers were beaten by state troopers -- has gained more than 477,000 signatures in support of renaming it for Rep. John Lewis.
“It’s far past time to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon that nearly gave his life on that bridge,” said attorney and Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins in the petition. “Edmund Pettus was a bitter racist, undeserving of the honor bestowed upon him. As we wipe away this country's long stain of bigotry, we must also wipe away the names of men like Edmund Pettus.”
Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer last Friday (July 17), was a young activist at the time and a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The group was working on its campaign for voting rights and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in organizing the first of the three Selma to Montgomery marches.
On March 7, 1965 marchers were confronted by state troopers on the bridge and attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis suffered a skull fracture in the fracas. The images of violence were televised globally and marked one of the pinnacle moments in the Civil RIghts movement.
A second march took place on March 9, but rather than a confrontation, troopers let the marchers pass.
In a third march on March 21, marchers were protected by national guardsmen.
The bridge was named a national landmark in 2013.
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In 2015, 50 years after the events on the bridge Lewis remembered what happened and credited the strength of the local community, which was responsible for organizing the march.
"Selma, these churches and these people, gave it everything they had,” Lewis told CNN. We wouldn't be where we are today as a nation and as a people (if it) hadn't been for this community."
Calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge have gone out for years, but with Lewis passing, a new push has surfaced to honor his work in the Civil Rights Movement and to remember a native son of Alabama.
Among those voices has been South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking African American member of Congress. He echoes the sentiment to remove Pettus’ name.
"Pettus was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan," Clyburn told NBC News. "Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man -- John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America -- rather than honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms."