As the starting point for the historic Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is an iconic symbol of the African American struggle for equality under U.S. law. It was here on March 7, 1965, that Alabama State Troopers attacked some 600 civil rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King in a violent incident that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” There were no fatalities, but the marchers were driven back across the bridge into town, leaving many in the crowd bloodied and wounded, but still resolute. Two weeks later, under protection of a decree issued by Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, the marchers were allowed to proceed over the bridge and begin their 50-mile trek along U.S. 80 to the Alabama State Capitol at Montgomery. It was a climactic moment of the Civil Rights Movement, contributing critically to congressional passage of the National Voting Rights Act a few months later.
Less dramatically, but significant from the standpoint of Alabama’s transportation history, the Pettus Bridge also marks an important highway construction and bridge-building initiative that started in the 1920s and continued with federal assistance through the 1930s, enabling the state to respond to the needs of the automobile. Named in honor of distinguished local citizen and longtime U.S. Senator Edmund Winston Pettus (1821–1907), the bridge was completed in 1940. Ironically, in view of his namesake bridge’s later history, Pettus had served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army of Tennessee and later, reputedly, as a Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.
Selma native Henson K. Stephenson designed the bridge during his tenure as an engineer with the State Highway Department. The four-lane, steel-and-concrete bridge measures 1,248 feet in length and crosses the Alabama River via eleven open-spandrel arches. These carry the bridge in a gradual ascent from the low-lying south bank of the river to the bluffs on the north side where the historic core of the city is located. Ten of the spans are reinforced concrete, but a great, steel through-arch supports the bridge at its highest point above the middle of the river. The apex of the bridge offers a vista of Selma’s steeple-crowned skyline and the picturesque nineteenth- and twentieth-century commercial fronts along Broad Street. Cantilevered sidewalks with iron railings flank the roadbed of the bridge. With metal plaques featuring kites, chevrons, and other motifs, the railings exhibit an awareness of stylized geometric commercial designs popular at that time.
The Pettus Bridge was the second vehicular and pedestrian bridge to cross the Alabama River at Selma, a flourishing port, agricultural trading center, and industrial community during the nineteenth century. Before construction of the Pettus, a metal turn-bridge dating to the 1880s stood one block to the east and was the only bridge over the Alabama River between Montgomery and Demopolis, a distance of nearly a hundred miles. Completion of the Pettus Bridge aligned the route of U.S. 80 with Broad Street, Selma’s main commercial thoroughfare. In 1926, U.S. 80 had been designated as one of the country’s first federal highways. Then known as the Dixie Overland Highway, it connected the Atlantic coast at Savannah, Georgia, with the Pacific at San Diego. Half a century later, during the 1970s, U.S. 80 traffic through Selma and across the Pettus Bridge was diverted to a new bypass and bridge east of the city.
Symbolic gateway to the city and icon in American history, the Edmund Pettus Bridge crosses literal and figurative waters. The bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013. In 2014, the bridge figured prominently in the Oscar-winning movie Selma. In 2015, President Barack Obama marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches by walking across the bridge with First Lady Michelle Obama and many of the civil rights activists who were there on Bloody Sunday.
Fager, Charles E. Selma 1965: The March that Changed the South.Boston: Beacon Press, 1974.
Walton, Cynthia, “Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Dallas County, Alabama. National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, 2012. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965.New York: Viking Press, 1987.