It may look like a simple through arch bridge, but the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not a simple bridge. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is a bridge that carries U.S. Route 80 across the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama. I’ve crossed it countless times in my life, and have always been struck by the history made there. Built in 1940, it is named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, Democratic Party U.S. Senator from Alabama and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The Pettus Bridge was the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when armed officers attacked civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capital of Montgomery.
Saturday, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the event as thousands gathered in the small city of Selma, Alabama to hear among others, President Obama speak. Obama’s address commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” during the marches to Montgomery in 1965, but his rhetorical scope encompassed all of American history. Obama made the case that we are not exceptional in the perfection of our virtue, but rather, exceptional in our relentless struggle to live up to our ideals:
For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.
For Obama, the marchers at Selma helped set a new course for American democracy. “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American,” he told the crowd. “Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors.” Had one of his predecessors not already taken the phrase, perhaps he would have called this a new birth of freedom.
He further noted, “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the ’50s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was 30 years ago. To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
Linking all “warriors of justice,” he invoked immigrants, slaves, and more who worked to change the U.S., he commented, “We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.”
It is often forgotten the role of LGBT Americans in the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans. James Baldwin was at the Selma to Montgomery March, and he wrote the first gay book I ever read, Giovanni’s Room. Lorraine Hansberry was a lesbian, whose 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, blazed a trail for African Americans into mainstream theatre and entertainment. Bayard Rustin was not only dedicated to orchestrating the civil rights movement, he was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisors, and the organizer of the epic 1963 March on Washington. The Civil Rights Movement owes a debt of gratitude to the many LGBT Americans who fought for equal rights in the 1950s and 1960s.