What I Did Not See in Selma

When I was in high school, John Lewis came to speak at assembly. It was around the time he was running for a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, the same seat a distant cousin of mine, Milton A. Candler, held from 1875-1879. Milton was a Democrat, but not like Lewis. In the late nineteenth century, the party was decidedly different than it is today; it largely represented the white elite, the engine of resistance against the new enfranchisement of freed slaves during Reconstruction. I know nothing of Milton’s personal political views, but I have a decent idea. Nothing of his story has been passed down to me through family lore. If any of my forebears know anything about Milt, they aren’t telling.

I didn’t know about Milt at all when Lewis came to speak at our high school. I only knew slightly more about Lewis, but not much. Lewis upset Julian Bond in the Democratic runoff in 1986, and then won easily in the general election. I was fifteen then, and like most privileged fifteen-year-olds at the time, completely oblivious to politics. But what I do remember from the time he was running for Congress is that his opponents criticized Lewis for the way he talked. It was not difficult to see, even then, the thinly veiled racism behind those criticisms.

Though I can recall nothing of what he actually said, I was inspired by Lewis’s appearance and his speech at assembly. I don’t know if any of us realized how fortunate we were to have someone of Lewis’s stature come talk to us. Maybe my African-American friends did, but I did not think to ask them what hearing John Lewis meant to them.

So in 1997, when I stood on the bank of the Alabama River in Selma, I thought of John Lewis. I thought of how lucky we were, and maybe how close we had come to a serious engagement with the issues of race in the South. When Lewis spoke to us, we brushed up against them. In the shadow of the bridge in Selma where Lewis led marchers over thirty years before, I wished that I had had more of a moment with John Lewis, had the guts to go down front and shake his hand, ask him to tell me more, to teach me. But then he was off and we were soon backpack-laden again and shuffling off to geometry class or P.E., resuming school-grade gossip and maybe pretending not to have been too shaken by what we had just heard because that would not have been cool.

My friend and collaborator, John Hayes, below the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1997.

The bridge is strangely artful and leaden: its repeating concrete arches under the deck echoed by the huge latticed steel arch spanning the width of the Alabama River. Its now iconic central arch has been declared “functionally obsolete,” and while it still carries traffic in and out of Selma, the heavy load it bears now is largely metaphorical.

Here is what the official version of Selma sounded like when written in 1940 by white writers for the WPA Guide to Alabama:

“Selma is like an old-fashioned gentlewoman, proud and patrician, but never unfriendly…On the broad streets, shiny new automobiles honk impatiently while a cotton-laden cart, drawn by a plodding ox, pulls slowly aside, and the aged Negro driver smilingly tips his battered hat.

“Since Reconstruction days, Selma’s Negro and white citizens have lived in an atmosphere of sympathetic understanding, tinged by a friendly paternalism on the part of the whites. Many of these Negroes are descendants of slaves who, after emancipation, chose to remain and work on the plantations where they had always lived.”

This was basically the standard version of race relations as many white Southerners narrated it to themselves. The story would go like this: blacks were happy on plantations, so they stayed there once they were freed. They smile from their plodding, ox-driven carts, so they must be content with their lot, right?

In another entry in the WPA Guide to Alabama, a local resident’s house at 722 Alabama Avenue is worth a look (just a look, though–it is private and not open to the public). The house belonged to a man who “entered Confederate service as a private and was mustered out as a brigadier-general. He served United States Senator for 12 years and had been reelected when he died in 1907.”

Thirty-three years after his death, a year before the WPA Guide to Alabama was published in 1941, they named a bridge across the Alabama River for him. His name is not on a plaque on the land side like most bridge’s namesakes, but emblazoned in large black capitals on the bridge itself, so that when you cross it, you pass under his name: Edmund Pettus.

The WPA Guide does not tell you that Edmund Wilson Pettus was also Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan from 1877 on. You can do the math yourself: when the bridge in Selma was named for Pettus in 1940—thirty-three years after his death—it was not just for his political accomplishments. It was meant as a message. And it is no accident that when John Lewis led marchers out of Selma over the bridge named for the former head of Klan on March 7th, 1965, they were sending a message too. Their heroic stand on the bridge was a reappropriation, a taking-back of a site named for someone whose name was a monument to Jim Crow.

Crossing the river under Pettus’s name, African-American visitors to Selma in 1940 may not have found the place as gentlewomanly as the WPA Guide promised it would be. If a black family, cruising up US 80 in 1941, the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge invisible behind its whale-back crest in the middle, the rider in the passenger’s seat directing the driver withThe Green Book (a sort of supplement to the WPA Guides for African-American travelers), they would have found no listings for black-friendly hotels in Selma.

Joe Spinner Johnson did not find Selma so friendly in 1935. Johnson was a leader of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union and an outspoken critic of “exploitative and racially discriminatory practices of wealthy white planters and landowners.” On July 11th, Johnson was called out of the field into Selma, where a white landlord-mob seized him and beat him to death in the Dallas County Jail, then dumped his body in a field forty-five miles away near Greensboro.

Johnson wasn’t the only one. The Selma jail had been the site of several notorious lynchings in the 1890s—Willy Webb in 1892, and Daniel Edwards in 1893—when Edmund Pettus was Grand Dragon of the state Klan. He would be elected to the United States Senate in 1896.

Monuments are not records of memory so much as records of what we choose to forget. We remember Edmund Pettus because he has a bridge named for him. But the price of that official, riveted-steel recognition is that we have forgotten Joe Spinner Johnson, Willy Webb, Daniel Edwards, and thousands more.

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For more on the history of lynching in America, read the report published by the Equal Justice Initiative: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

If you are in or near Montgomery, go visit The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opens today: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial 

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