After seeing the movie "Selma," I polled many friends, black and white, and none knew who Edmund Pettus was. It's worth knowing.
Images of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march show Dr. Martin Luther King and volunteers from across the nation passing under the arch of a beautiful bridge with the name "Edmund Pettus Bridge" above them in bold capitals. Understanding the story of Edmund Pettus makes that image all the more poignant. The marchers likely knew who he was, and so should we.
Edmund Pettus was a lawyer and Confederate hero who returned to Alabama and helped create and lead the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
In 1861, Pettus, a champion of the Confederate cause, was a delegate to the secession convention in Mississippi, where his brother John was serving as governor. Pettus helped organize the 20th Alabama Infantry, and in 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general, commanding five Alabama regiments.
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After the war, Pettus moved to Selma, resumed his law practice and became a powerful force in Alabama politics. He was chairman of the state Democratic Party delegation to each national convention from 1872 through 1896.
In the late 1870s, Pettus was named Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Confederate leaders looking to reclaim and re-install the social order disrupted by the Emancipation Proclamation, the loss to the North and Reconstruction created the KKK in the 1860s. They engaged in acts of terror to put African-Americans "back in their place."
But with slavery illegal, what was their place? Pettus and the resurgent Confederates created a new social order to keep African-Americans in subordination. They used disparate, discriminatory enforcement of laws that appeared neutral and social practices that enforced separation and blocked African-Americans from equal access to education, jobs and political participation.
Pettus as a lawyer and a politician was a leader in the creation of this new social system of African-American subordination, the new edifice of near-slavery with minimal wages. We would later call this "segregation" and "Jim Crow." As a former general of the Confederate Army, Pettus was a leader in the KKK, which historian Eric Foner has called the military arm of the post-Civil War Democratic Party, the planter class and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy. By 1877, segregationist white Democrats had regained control of all Southern states.
Pettus was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1896 at age 75. He served until his death in 1907 - which followed a stroke suffered while on vacation to Hot Springs, N.C. His legacy and positive public standing among those with power were so strong that Selma's bridge over the Alabama River was named for him when it was built in 1940, 33 years after his death.
This, then, is the bittersweet juxtaposition of images of the march out of Selma shown in the current movie: that the Edmund Pettus Bridge - named for a notable architect of segregation and a founder of the domestic terror organization that enforced it - would carry those brave marchers, and our whole country, into a new framing of our history and reconsideration of the core meaning of our Constitution and democracy.
Sherri Zann Rosenthal is an attorney in Durham.