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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Man out of time

by Philip Martin | March 7, 2023 at 4:37 a.m.

Edmund Winston Pettus was a man of his time.

Accomplished, no doubt. The youngest of nine children born to a wealthy planter and the daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran, he read the law under William Cooper in Tuscumbia and was admitted to the Alabama bar in 1842.

He was an officer with the Alabama volunteers during the Mexican-American War. After that conflict ended he headed for California to prospect for gold, returning to Alabama by 1853.

Two years later he was sailing to Central America and trekking overland across the Isthmus of Panama to catch another ship, braving malaria and yellow fever along the way. (Many years later, as an septuagenarian U.S. senator, Pettus would oppose the construction of the Panama Canal, instead supporting an alternative plan to build a canal through Nicaragua.)

In 1855, he was named district judge, and in 1861, after the Civil War broke out, he was elected as major in the 20th Alabama Infantry. A couple of months later he was elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He fought, military historians say, "with conspicuous bravery." He was twice captured by union troops--the first time he was returned as part of a prisoner exchange; the second time he escaped and probably hid out in the house of his brother John, the governor of Mississippi, before returning to the lines.

He took over command of 20th Alabama Infantry upon the death of Gen. Isham Garrett and was promoted to brigadier general, commanding the 20th, 23rd, 30th, 31st, and 46th Alabama regiments. He was captured again during the Siege of Vicksburg and again returned as part of a prisoner exchange. (You can laugh at a soldier for being taken prisoner three times, but you cannot accuse him of avoiding the enemy.)

His men saw action at Missionary Ridge and Nashville in Tennessee and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. A Minie ball shattered his right leg during the Battle of Bentonville (North Carolina) in the last days of the war.

Four months after the end of the war, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. He went home to Alabama and re-established his law practice in Selma, which at the time was one of the wealthiest places in America due to cotton production and foundries. (Selma had been one of the South's main military manufacturing centers during the war, providing munitions and building ironclad warships.) He arrived as a war hero with a successful law career, and began acquiring farmland and political power.

As Pettus emerged as one of the state's leading Democrats, the state was grappling with a new class of quasi-citizen: emancipated slaves. The legacy power structure needed ways to assert its power over former slaves, to continue the economically advantageous feudal system made possible by slavery in a world where actual slavery was illegal.

So the powerful turned to intimidation and murder. Alabama led the nation in lynchings, and in 1877, the honorable Edmund Pettus became Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.

It was a natural fit; the Democratic Party and the KKK were working together to restore the old order, to disenfranchise Black people and secure a servile and cheap labor force. Pettus was one of the most powerful men in the state, serving as chairman of the Alabama delegation to each national Democratic convention from 1872 through 1896.

He might never have deigned to wear a hood or burned a cabin or lynched anyone, but Edmund Pettus was an architect of terror, insulated by wealth and power from the bloodletting he suborned.

He had a high opinion of himself; it's said he only ran for the U.S. Senate because he felt insulted when Grover Cleveland declined to appoint him to the Supreme Court. So in 1896, at age 75, Pettus ran and won, becoming the last Confederate officer to serve in Congress. He stayed there until he died in 1907, about midway through his second term.

"If Senator Pettus had an enemy, it was certainly not here in Washington," one of his Senate colleagues read into the record.

"He had control of the varied emotions and ambitions of the soul, a philosophic view of the failures and disappointments that come to all, and existed in an atmosphere above the level of envies, jealousies, and hatreds of life itself," another said. "... Pettus was singularly kind and gracious with his fellows--literally as brave as a lion and gentle as a child."

Yes, Edmund Pettus was a man of his time.

But unlike the many who might have been troubled by the moral implications of people owning people but supported slavery and secession pragmatically, Pettus was a true believer in white supremacy, a fanatic who believed slavery was necessary to maintain civilization. By his lights, Black people could not be allowed the same rights as whites.

This was not lost on the people who named that bridge after him in Selma.

They called it the Edmund Pettus Bridge because they wanted to remind Black people who was in charge and that there was nothing they could do about it, no matter what the liberals and the outside agitators might tell them. There is power in naming. And naming can demonstrate power.

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Selma, he might not have thought much about the symbolism of the name on the bridge. He had more practical concerns--the population of the town was mostly Black, but there were relatively few Black voters.

On March 7, 1965, when a young John Lewis led 600 marchers across the bridge and was met with brutal force from state troopers, the video evidence shocked the world and shook the country and galvanized the fight against racial injustice.

It was theater. The blood was real.

I don't think they ought to change the name of that bridge. Let it live on in infamy. Let's let people know who Edmund Pettus was and why his name is there.

The spirit of Edmund Pettus lives on; a teacher might get in trouble for telling students the truth about him. They'd call this column "CRT" or some nonsense. They'd want to protect a certain snowflake class from getting their feelings hurt.

I don't know if any of my people were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 58 years ago, but if they were, they were probably on the wrong side of history. I'm not proud of that, but I'm not going to make up stories to make myself feel better.

Yeah, Edmund Pettus was a man of his time. And ours.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected]

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