Forget this name

Selma, Ala., bridge needs a better title

April 06, 2015

I crossed through the No. 23, and looked up to see the No. 24.

I was keeping the official scorebook during one of my son’s AAU basketball tournaments recently when a situation lit up quicker and more intense than a bulb on a scoreboard. After a team from Joliet, Ill., which had all African-American players, sank 1 of 2 free throws I marked it accordingly. The score I had was 23-21, but the scoreboard read 24-21. I quickly turned to the 11-year-old Joliet representative working the electronics and said the score I had was 23-21, and what he had up in lights was wrong. This is when the Joliet coach lit into me, calling me dysfunctional and out of touch. OK, he used more colorful language than that, even after I showed him the running score and how I got to the controversial 23.

The referee agreed with me. She had no choice, because the rules state the official score is the one in the scorebook.

As the game wore on, the tension began to get stoked. It was still a two-point game late when I noticed the clock was still running, and in all of the excitement I turned to the fifth-grader and yelled, “Stop the clock!” Joliet parents quickly came to his defense, and the verbal threats were hitting me hard from behind.

If we were all of a common race I wonder if the tolerance would have been a little firmer. Maybe I am off base here, but the series of altercations that night did a number on my mindset. The national news has filled our television surround sound with the events that took place in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. Racial tension is as high as it has been in decades.

In early March, demonstrators commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday with another march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. After seeing a live standup by a reporter, I was fascinated at the engineering of this infamous span, which is a steel through arch bridge with a central span of 250 ft. The structure is a National Historic Landmark, and also on the state’s functionally obsolete list.

I wanted to find out all about the maintenance history of this wrinkled beauty, but who exactly was Edmund Pettus? (And with three young kids under my wing, I never saw the movie Selma or the recent 60 Minutes segment.) So before I called the Alabama DOT, I revved up the Internet. Apparently, there is a score that needs to be settled here.

Edmund Winston Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general and a U.S. Senator from Alabama. He also was a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. On March 7, 1965, civil rights demonstrators were attempting to make their way to the state capital in Montgomery. They were “redirected” by armed policemen in what is one of the darkest, most shameful events in U.S. history. The demonstrators had no idea what was about to hit them—the Pettus Bridge slopes upward as you cross, meaning the marchers did not know of the vicious number that was out to stop them until it was too late.

Yet to this day you can see Edmund Pettus in big, bold, black letters across one of the main truss members of this bridge. Politicians in Alabama, and those with the state DOT, should have made certain those letters were sandblasted off even before the first billy club was raised on that Bloody Sunday. Here I thought for one brief moment there was some sort of attraction with this bridge, that it was a blushing small-town Southern belle. In reality, this is a kind of ugly that has left a stench for 50 years. Alabama, you need to change the name—now. Your reasoning for keeping it is pointless.

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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