Tom Ekin grabbed my hand and my shoulder when he found out where I was from. “Birmingham!” he said. “I’ve been to Birmingham. I’ve been to Selma. I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
It was September of 2004 and I was the guest of honor at a library conference in Belfast. The elaborate opening reception was held at Belfast City Hall and I was being presented to the Lord Mayor. Short, portly, white haired, ruddy faced, wearing the heavy ornate medallion of his office, smiling as he greeted the guests, he looked every bit how I would’ve pictured the Lord Mayor of an Irish city. But I hadn’t expected his reaction on being introduced to me.
Ekin told me that he was the first Lord Mayor of Belfast to come from the Alliance party, which was dedicated to finding non-sectarian solutions to the Troubles. Neither Unionist nor Irish Nationalist, the Alliance Party sought to bridge the divides between Protestant and Catholic. They took inspiration from the American civil rights movement. A couple years earlier he’d made a pilgrimage to Alabama with his family so they could go to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the other important sites in Birmingham and join the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Right before my eyes he shifted from being just a jolly little businessman and local politician. I saw he was a hero, risking his life every day, trying to help heal the divides in his hometown and country.
“I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” Words have power. A phrase can become an incantation. When the Lord Mayor of Belfast said those words he wasn’t just referring to a beat up old bridge in a small town in Alabama. He was invoking something much greater than a single place and time. To march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is to be a part of the greatest movement for human dignity that the world has ever seen.
History isn’t just a set of facts, it’s a story. It’s a story about the present and the future as much as it is about the past. The story of Edmund Pettus, the man, doesn’t end with the bridge being named after him. You could hardly find a better representative of the need to march than Edmund Pettus. Delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention, senior officer in the Confederate Army, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, U.S. Senator following the failure of Reconstruction. Linger a moment on that last title. Thirty years after the defeat of the Confederacy, Alabama made Pettus a Senator. Forty years after that, when the city fathers named a bridge after him, they were sure they’d won. Lee’s army might have been defeated, but the cause of white supremacy was secure.
But the story didn’t end there. John Lewis wouldn’t let it end there. Lewis, and so many others, who’ve been willing to put their lives on the line to defeat everything that Edmund Pettus stood for. And now, whenever the words “the Edmund Pettus Bridge” are uttered, they don’t honor a misbegotten man who personifies all of the racial failures of America, they honor all the thousands whose lives will not be denied.
John Lewis wasn’t just a hero that day he first marched across the bridge. Lewis marched every single day of his life. And that gave courage to so many others. Maybe my favorite John Lewis story is the one from Comic-con just a few years ago – 2015. Lewis was being celebrated there on the publication of the 2nd volume of his graphic novel, March. He decided to cosplay himself; scrounged up a trench coat like the one he wore in 1965, found a similar backpack, loaded it with the same items he’d carried back then. He went into the convention hall in San Diego and was surrounded by little kids. They were awed to be in the presence of a real life superhero. He held their hands, and they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
I favor keeping Pettus’s name on the bridge. Maybe History has a sense of humor, too. Let his name stand in for all those who believe they can’t succeed without beating somebody else down. Every time his name is uttered, the echo comes back from a million voices, “We shall overcome.”
When Kaepernick took a knee, he was marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The women who founded Black Lives Matter are marching cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the Moms linked arms in Portland, they were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Every day this summer, in big cities and small towns, across America and around the world, people are marching with John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And they’re going to keep marching.
Words have power. Say it. Think of John Lewis and say it. “Today I am marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” March.