Selma group alters protest plan; marches to change Edmund Pettus Bridge name

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Members of Students Unite lead marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Sunday, March 8. The group is seeking support for efforts to rename the bridge which honors a civil war general who also was a Ku Klux Klan member. Photo by Elyssa Larson

It was a new march for a new movement.

“This is the movement of the future,” said Mark Duke, one of the sponsors of an impromptu march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge Sunday morning. Duke also is founder of the Freedom Foundation, a non-profit serving Selma youth.

Invoking the words of John Legend and Common’s Academy Award-winning song, “Glory,” he added, “It’s going to take the wisdom of the elders and the energy of the youth.”

What had been planned as a peaceful protest march from Selma Community Church in Selma, Ala., to a historic public cemetery where a monument honoring civil war general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest stands, quickly morphed into a march across the famed bridge hours before the schedule re-enactment of the march for voting rights known as Bloody Sunday.

As supporters gathered in the pews of the church, organizers met in the back discussing how to respond to news that members of Friends of Forest, Inc., the group responsible for erecting the monument, were waiting at the cemetery to confront the protesters. Duke explained that, in recent months, the city sold an acre of the public cemetery to the group as a site for their memorial to Forrest. Rather than draw attention to a cause of hate, Duke said, Students Unite and the Freedom Foundation decided to shift the focus to an SU campaign to change the name of the bridge. It too, is named after a confederate general and Klan member.

Students Unite is a recent addition to Selma. As a branch of the Freedom Foundation, its primary organizers, John Gainey, Jack Townes, Brandi Hatter and Kylie Jones, work to help young people promote equality and justice. The group models itself after the principles of nonviolence and direct action.

Roughly 300 people lined up along the sidewalk outside the church arranging themselves by twos. Children marched with adults and many carried signs calling for “Unity” as organizers passed out American flags.

“Remember to follow the traffic rules,” called out one line marcher.

Rafael Johnson, a Georgia Tech grad, served as flag bearer leading the group alongside 15-year-old Maddie Duke.

As marchers moved down Franklin Street before turning on to Alabama Avenue and heading for the bridge, visitors in town for the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march looked on – a bit confused by the sight. Still, from across a parking lot where mobile campers were parked, applause could be heard as the protesters marched in silence.

A curious press, gathering early footage for the day and working on stand-ups, scrambled to catch up to the march unfolding before them. One local TV reporter called to a colleague that he wanted to go “live in two.”

The marchers walked over the bridge, turned around and then paused at its crest as Duke addressed the crowd.

“This is not a white thing,” he said. “This is not a black thing. This is an American thing.”

The bridge, Duke told the marchers and onlookers, should be named for the freedom it represents.

“We should not honor a Klan leader.”

One marcher, Kerron Stokes, who was visiting from Colorado, called out to the crowd. “We don’t stand here for ourselves, we stand here for freedom.”

Marchers formed a circle and locked arms, as Ron Brown, pastor of Selma Community church, known as Selma’s integrated church, kneeled to lead the group in prayer. They invited visitors on the bridge to join them as they sang the iconic civil rights song, “We shall overcome.”

Duke said the march was needed because the city is “not changing.” He cited the existence of a segregated country club, its nearly all-black public schools and the refusal of local white leadership to support equality efforts as evidence of continued problems.

“This city won’t change it,” Duke said of the bridge name. “Alabama won’t change it. We’re asking the world to help us change it.

— Jan Larson

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