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The John Lewis Bridge Project

Who was Edmund Pettus

Edmund Winston Pettus was an American politician, lawyer, and avid slavery supporter from Alabama. He was born in 1821 in Limestone County. It was here that he largely received his public education, eventually being admitted to the state’s bar in 1842. Pettus was elected solicitor for the seventh Judicial Circuit of Alabama after marrying Mary Chapman in 1844. Although Pettus’s career in law might have accounted for the bulk of his early life, he is more commonly remembered for a history of violence, racial prejudice, and hate.

Throughout the Mexican-American War, Pettus served as a lieutenant with the Alabama Volunteers. He moved to California following the conclusion of the war, carrying with him his discriminatory ideology. It was here that he participated in paramilitary actions against many Native Americans. He eventually moved back to Alabama in the years leading up to the civil war, where he resumed his position in the seventh Judicial Circuit of Alabama.

In 1861, following Lincoln’s Presidential election, and South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Pettus was a delegate to the secession convention in Mississippi. He was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery and the Confederate cause, and eventually went on to organize the 20th Alabama Infantry. Pettus was captured numerous times by Union soldiers, a fact that stands to rebut his legacy of heroism for the Confederate State. Pettus, like many other Confederate soldiers, was pardoned by the U.S. Government following the conclusion of the Civil War.

Following the war, Pettus resumed his law practice in Alabama, where he also served as chairman of the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention for more than two decades. He remained a vocal opponent to Reconstruction, and in its final year was named Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Despite his blatant racist affiliation, Pettus, at the age of 75, ran for Senate and won. His campaign relied on his success at organizing the Alabama Klan, and his flagrant opposition to the citizenship amendments made to the Constitution during Reconstruction. He served in the U.S. Senate until his death in the summer of 1907. Pettus’s reputation is that of racism, hatred, and bigotry. Although his role in history might not be as notorious as Jefferson Davis, or Stephen Douglas, Edmund Pettus’s name is a reminder of the racist and violent roots of our country.

The Edmund Pettus bridge was constructed in 1940, and named after this Confederate veteran. The bridge would later be publicized by its role as the backdrop for the bloody beatings of civil rights protestors on March 7th, 1965 - a day that would later go down in history as Bloody Sunday. This bridge, a symbol of civil rights activism in today’s age, has a deep history - one rooted in the racist ideology promoted by Edmund Pettus. This bridge, like many other pieces of infrastructure throughout the country, remains a silent yet commanding reminder of both the hatred, bigotry, and racism of the past, and also that which has survived to this day.