St. Olaf College | News

History professor talks to national media about civil rights landmark

St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald

St. Olaf College Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald tells the Associated Press that the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a landmark synonymous with the civil rights movement, is undoubtedly named for a white supremacist.

As the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches approaches this month, the story about the bridge’s namesake — and a petition by Selma students to rename the landmark — has been featured in outlets ranging from NBC News to Business Insider.

Voting rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge were violently beaten by law enforcement officers on March 7, 1965, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The following Tuesday, Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of clergy members — including St. Olaf alumnus James Reeb — onto the bridge, where they knelt, prayed, and sang “We Shall Overcome” before retreating to Selma. Several weeks later, marchers crossed the bridge as they began a successful 50-mile march to Montgomery to protest voting laws.

Because of that history, a group of students in Selma would like to see the bridge renamed. Built in 1940, the bridge is named for Edmund Winston Pettus, a Confederate general and U.S. senator who lived in Selma after the Civil War.

Fitzgerald, who is researching a book on Reconstruction-era Alabama, tells the AP that he hasn’t found “persuasive evidence” that Pettus was a Ku Klux Klan officer or even member. But, he says, Pettus was “almost certainly” involved with the White League, a later terrorist organization.

“What I would say is Edmund Pettus is definitely a strong white supremacist,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald specializes in southern history, teaching courses on African American history and the Civil War era as well as topical seminars on slavery, civil rights, and related topics. This January, his Experiencing Southern History course examined how Alabama’s official sites of memory — museums, monuments, and memorials — reflect the competing demands of politics, public attitudes, schools, and tourism.