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Why Taking a Racist Traitor's Name Off That Bridge In Selma Is a Terrible Idea

The well-intentioned movement to rename the iconic civil rights battleground is wrong in so many ways.

There is a movement underway, backed by a petition, to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama because it is named after a despicable racist traitor. It is also the place where, 50 years ago this week, future Congressman John Lewis and many others spilled blood in simultaneous service to, and defiance of, this country. On Tuesday night's The Last Word, host Lawrence O'Donnell took the idea a step further, suggesting a new name for the bridge. He offered a valuable history lesson on the origin of the bridge's name, but then utterly failed to learn anything from it:

If Edmund Pettus had still been alive and in command of the Alabama State Police that day in 1965, John Lewis might not be alive today. It is long past time to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A petition has thousands of signatures in support, and today I came upon a brilliant suggestion, changing the name of the bridge to the John Lewis Bridge. The bridge American heroes like John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. marched over was named for an American disgrace. Let's rename it for an American hero.

In fairness to O'Donnell, he's in good company, because President Obama got some of the same things wrong in his 50th anniversary speech on Saturday. Although I have reason to believe that some of the things he said were trade-offs he made to make people more comfortable with his impassioned demands for change in the latter part of the speech, they illustrate some of the problems with O'Donnell's thinking.

For example, if history has taught us anything, it's that O'Donnell is wrong when he says that if Pettus had been in command that day, John Lewis might not be alive today. John Lewis is alive today because his skull was just barely stronger than the club he was beaten with, wielded by a cop who sprung up to replace Edmund Pettus long after the man died. Fifty years later, Pettus' spiritual children are still in control of black lives, and were spoken of during the President's speech:

"What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was."

Again, I'm not sure how much of this was sugar to make the rest of the medicine go down, but there's just no evidence to support what he said there, and lots of evidence to the contrary. The Department of Justice turned over one rock, and this is what they found. Things aren't like they were, to be sure, but policing strategies and the unending string of police killings of unarmed black men strongly suggest that the racism that fueled Ferguson is common, if not pervasive, and that it is sanctioned by law.

O'Donnell was right to call the men and women who marched with John Lewis American heroes, but both he and President Obama omitted a key detail.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

He's right that what happened in Selma was quintessentially American, but it wasn't a vindication of the idea of America, it was a victory over it. The marchers were American heroes, but the people who beat them were Americans, too, acting under the authority of law, and so was Edmund Pettus, who died in office as a United States senator. So are the cops in Ferguson, and the cops who killed Eric Garner, and all the cops under all the rocks that haven't yet been turned over. They are as much a part of the "idea of America" as the hopes and ideals of those who have fought against them. The idea of America is something that is not settled, it is something over which we constantly fight.

There are also much better ways to honor John Lewis than renaming that bridge, as the President pointed out in his speech. Of the recently-gutted Voting Rights Act, Obama said "If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.That’s how we honor those on this bridge."

It's a pretty good bet that John  Lewis would much rather see his name on an ironclad John Lewis Voting Rights Act than on a bridge in Alabama. Of course we could do both, but there's an important reason why we shouldn't.

Edmund Pettus was an American disgrace, and America needs to be reminded of Edmund Pettus, lest we become blind to his heirs in our midst. More than that, though, we need to be reminded that we named a bridge after him, the same year that John Lewis was born. Pettus is long dead, just as he reached through time to break bones on that day in 1965, he's still reaching through time to break the progress those marchers fought for. Erasing Edmund Pettus' name from that bridge won't erase the ghost that still inhabits the America we still fight for, it will just give it a chance to sneak up on us when we're not looking.

It already has.