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Sewell backs renaming bridge, but says Selma should decide

As a petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge gains traction, currently having nearly 100,000 signatures and big-name support from “Selma” director Ava Duvernay, actress Kathy Bates, journalist Maria Shriver and others, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL, released a statement Monday adding her name to the list of supporters.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests and outcry across the nation, there is no denying that this moment is different,” Sewell said in the statement. “Our brothers and sisters – black and white – are crying out for bold change.”

Sewell noted that the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the “site where foot soldiers shed their blood in the name of equality and justice for all Americans,” is a powerful symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

“While I believe the historical significance of the bridge transcends the man for which it was named, I also acknowledge that in this moment everything must be on the table and that includes renaming the bridge,” Sewell stated. “My primary focus is on extending the rights of the living and not on the transgressions of the dead. The voices on the streets of the nation cry out to be heard and they demand real change. Removing Confederate memorials and renaming buildings is not the change they seek, but it is an important step in the process towards racial healing. We must be willing to do the easy things so that we can focus on making transformational change.”

Sewell added that “any and all impediments” to making systemic changes in policing, education, housing, economic policy and more must be removed.

“We must confront and reject Alabama’s racist history and come together to implement the bold changes needed to ensure our nation finally lives up to its promise of equality and justice for all,” Sewell said.

In 2015, however, Sewell voiced opposition to calls to rename the bridge, saying in a statement at the time that the bridge’s “name is as significant as its imposing structure.”

“I am strongly opposed to changing the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Sewell said in 2015. “The historical irony is an integral part of the complicated history of Selma — a city known for its pivotal role in [the] Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The bridge is an iconic symbol of the struggle for voting rights in America and its name is as significant as its imposing structure. Changing the name of the bridge would change the course of history and compromise the historical integrity of the voting rights movement. As inheritors of the legacy surrounding the historical events that took place in Selma, we must safeguard that history — good and bad and resist attempts to rewrite it.”

The turnabout, however, is in response to the current moment, which Sewell said demands an “unequivocal” response – she provided one after the unrest in Birmingham, which took place on Jefferson Davis Day in the state.

“We need to remove these vestiges of our very painful history in Alabama,” Sewell said. “I can’t say remove the holiday, stop celebrating the holiday, and somehow say that the bridge is not up for consideration at all. I truly believe that we who grew up in Selma, we grow up understanding the complicated history that is Montgomery, Selma,  and Birmingham, which is a history that includes both the Civil War and civil rights.”

“In order to say you see me and you hear me, you have to acknowledge that we’ve never dealt with institutional racism in America,” Sewell continued. “You must understand how deeply offensive it is that we celebrate and glorify these Confederate generals when what they wanted was to keep me and people who looked like me enslaved. It’s unacceptable in 2020. What makes our democracy great is that it’s a work in progress – it is messy and imperfect but it allows us to acknowledge our faults and redeem ourselves. And redemption and atonement require an acknowledgment that racism permeates every system in America.4Still, Sewell said the decision rests ultimately with the people of Selma and Dallas County.

“I believe the will of the people should reign and the people of Selma and Dallas County should decide what it should do with the bridge,” Sewell said. “These decisions are being made at the state legislature level and I think it’s unfortunate that the city of Birmingham can’t decide what statue can stay in that community, that the people of Selma can’t stay what stays or goes in their community. I don’t want to be an impediment to the will of the people, I think the people of Selma should decide what happens with the bridge. I’m with the people, but I do believe this moment is different.”

The petition now making the rounds, launched by podcast host Michael Starr Hopkins, aims to rename the bridge for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-GA, who was among the civil rights marchers brutalized by state troopers on Bloody Sunday.

“This isn’t just about changing the name on a bridge, this is about changing our country and living up to our own expectations,” Hopkins said in a press release.