Under This Name

A naming controversy over an infamous bridge in Alabama is an appropriate location to reflect upon the polarities that divide us. America is stretched and pulled by the unavoidable differences arising from our cultural, racial, historical and personal experiences. We are cut off by our past and the hidden truths we refuse to acknowledge or the shame we are too frightened to confront. Distance and denial walk happily hand-in-hand when there’s little motivation to reach across the divide that separates the human family.

In 2015, a petition of 189,000 signatures advanced a Senate Bill in the state legislature to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge. Built in 1940, this bridge connects Selma to the capital city of Montgomery along Highway 80 and was named for a two-term U.S. senator who entered the race in 1896 at the age of 75 and stayed in office until his death 11 years later.

But it was not for a reputable gentility or seasoned statesmanship his name was meant to be proudly memorialized by the bridge that has made him better known in death than he ever became during his long life. Historian Wayne Flynt recounts how the purpose of naming places in 1940’s Selma was about a black person’s degradation. “It’s a sort of in-your-face reminder of who runs this place.”

The commemorated Pettus was a slave owner, from a family of slave owners who had profited enormously from the cotton industry and the enforced labor that sustained it. A “true-believer,” he fostered a “fanaticism” that moved him up the ranks as a Confederate brigadier general, “legendary” for his tenacious and rebellious spirit. Never at peace with the defeat of his beloved south or the prejudices and principles that provided the foundations of Antebellum society he worked so hard to maintain, he became, after the war, the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. His leadership in this well-organizational structure undoubtedly boosted his successful ascendancy into the U.S. Senate.

Whether or not he was an active participant in the violence of the Klan, it is highly unlikely he would have opposed it. “I would be very surprised if a man of his social standing actually went out with guns and masks on, but the fact that he knew what was happening is almost inevitable,” Flynt said. “There’s really no way of excluding Edmund Pettus of responsibility from the violence. He helps organize it, he helps protect it, and he does not seek to prosecute anyone who did it.”

John Lewis and other marchers crest the Edmund Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965

Therefore, the recent effort to rename the bridge proposed what sounded like a long overdue change. They suggest the “Freedom Bridge,” would be more fitting. But the movement failed in the Alabama house. It was challenged, not by those wishing to keep the old ways, but from those wiser witnesses who wanted to ensure the old ways were never forgotten so they would not as likely ever be repeated again.

House Reps. John Lewis (whose unique voice of authority is underscored by his suffering upon that bridge of infamy) and Teri Sewell are the ones who defended keeping the name of the bridge. “Renaming the Bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it — the good and the bad,” they said.

They are correct. We cannot pretend this past is well behind us. The tone-deaf response, as noticed by recent (and possibly short-lived) Presidential hopeful Howard Schultz, who claimed, “I don’t see color,” ignores the reality of on-going structural and societal forces that only grow more powerful by our neglect to acknowledge and address them. We repeat the worst parts of our past when we forget the past and fail to learn from its lessons.

The bridge to our future is an open, frank and honest look at our history. It requires a courageous reach across the racial and economic divide that separates us from our neighbor, and a brutal recounting of one another’s stories, even if we must bear the weight of the pain and shame they are likely to reveal.

Five year old Kendarius Vickers stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he waits for his family before the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in Selma, Alabama March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Under the name of Pettus, Jim Crow-era abusers sought protection. The name was obscured by troubles and tear gas when the world was shocked to see with their own eyes and on their own tiny black and white televisions the freedom fighters attacked and beaten and then courageously and peacefully returning on following days to claim a new destiny. Today, this name still spells out in honor and dishonor, a place where people of all colors and backgrounds visit, remember, and wonder what will lie ahead.

A Diversion Upon the Path

There’s a motto that has gathered more meaning to me over the passing of years. It is, “Man plans. God laughs.” And while I don’t believe God puts us in the path of trouble on purpose but provides the strength we need for the facing of whatever adversity is ahead, sometimes our greatest plans need flexibility and finesse.

All that is to say: I stayed behind from the planned trip to Montgomery due to a confidential pastoral care need, where I felt I was better needed elsewhere. In the next post, though, I offer a finished essay for this destination I will have to wait to visit in person.

Sabbath’s Struggle for “Inner Liberty”

Preparing for a Sunday morning, I am sorry to lose this material on the editing room floor as I finalize my pending sermon. But these words are as relevant today as they were when published in 1951 by the esteemed Abraham Joshua Heschel. He writes how we need the Sabbath to survive civilization.

“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, [we] must fight for inner liberty” to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath

Room on the Bus

Over President’s Day weekend, I’ll be traveling with the Presbyterians to Alabama. Our first stop will be to Selma to visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge and take the National Park Service tour at the Selma Interpretive Center. The following day is reserved for the newly opened Legacy Museum in Montgomery (see video below).

Sunday will find us at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church with the American Spiritual Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Everett McCorvey. I’ll be sharing travel memories in this blog.

I’m thankful there’s room for me, especially as I remember and honor the dignity and bravery of those for whom so much has been denied.

This Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me, I hope!

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

  – J.R.R. Tolkien

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Another blog. Another writer. Another post. Isn’t all of this too much already? I agree. I imagine most visiting these pages already know me. Thank you for reserving a bit of your precious time for this form of engagement. I’m glad to share my stories, reflections, and experiences with you.

The rest are strangers. Somehow you have found yourself here, and I welcome you. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I am not looking to be provocative or to throw my words around as more fodder into the cultural maelstrom we now tolerate and even, substitute as authentic dialogue.

I am a traveler, a life-long learner and, likely, a restless seeker. As you will discover, I have deeply-held convictions and life-shaping commitments. But I’m not asking for your approval or agreement. Instead, I offer you, perhaps my yet-to-be-discovered friends, the same welcome I extend to my more personal connections. I’m glad you are here and I hope you will find something valuable for your own life’s experience.

We are all traveling together, by choice and, by happy coincidences. Thank you for allowing me to share a little bit of my story with you.