Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Register for Glenn Miller Tickets in Mobile on May 30.

Lighting the way: The effort to light up the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Cindy Fisher, Selma Sun

The Edmund Pettus Bridge is used by motorists on daily trips over the Alabama River, toward Montgomery or into Selma. Critics of the bridge’s infamous name point to how Edmund Pettus was a Confederate General, U.S. Senator and state leader of the Ku Klux Klan. For others, the structure has a great deal of significance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It was on this bridge where over 600 protesters were violently attacked during a demonstration in 1965. The attack became known the world over as “Bloody Sunday.” The shocking images from this attack led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Now, it is the biggest tourism draw for the city of Selma.

Sheryl Smedley is the executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce. She said people come because they want to see a piece of history and they come from all over the world.

“It is our No. 1 attraction. Everyone who comes to Selma definitely walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” she said. “It’s what took place in 1965. The fact that it is now a national monument, and it is also being nominated to be a world monument with the United Nations.”

But you can only see the bridge in the daytime. That struck local pastor Michial Lewis. He said he had a brainstorm about the bridge once the sun went down.

“Driving over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I thought 'You know this is probably one of the most important bridges in the country if not the whole world and at nighttime, it’s pretty much in the dark,'” he said. "So, I just thought it seemed appropriate that the Edmund Pettus Bridge would have proper, respectful lighting like any national, historic monument.”

His goal is the light up the Edmund Pettus Bridge with LED lights. It’s a mission he started a few years ago, but it is beginning to pick up steam.

Michial Lewis

“I just began to talk to people and eventually we had a meeting at the bridgetender’s house on Aug. 4, 2017," he said. "We had just a few local citizens, we had a couple city councilmen, other local people who were interested. That’s where we kind of got some impetus to go with the idea.”

He checked out bridges across the country and started reaching out to companies to help make this a reality. One of the outfits he talked to, took a serious interest in the project. That was HLB Lighting.

“They met as a company and decided they would do the lighting design for the bridge pro bono as their contribution to civil rights and racial healing," Lewis said, "They’ve, as a company, done so much for us and we’re grateful.”

With HLB and other companies locked in, Lewis was able to focus on fundraising and getting others on board.

“Since that time, we’ve had official approval from Selma and the city council. They voted, unanimously, twice to support the bridge lighting and the sign the contracts," he said. "We have broad community support and there’s a lot of excitement about it in Selma and we’ve made a lot of progress.”

There is a particular group of people Lewis wanted to earn the approval of though.

Lynda Blackmon Lowery was the youngest of the marchers on Bloody Sunday. These people are known as the “foot soldiers” in Selma.

“I was on that bridge in 1965," Lowery said. "I was beaten by a sheriff’s deputy, kicked by an Alabama State Trooper, hit again by another sheriff’s deputy and then kicked and hit again by yet another sheriff’s deputy which led me to receive 35 stitches of which I still carry a scar over my right eye and a knot on the back of my head.”

Lewis and his team met with the foot soldiers. He wanted to make sure they approved of their plans. Lowery said she loved seeing their plans for the bridge.

“To see the bridge come alive, it was just coming alive with these lights and the symbolic meaning of the colors of the lights," she said. "I was just in awe.”

Lowery said this project will help people see the Edmund Pettus Bridge as she sees it.

“To have that bridge lighted and knowing that bridge is a symbol of hope, not only for this country, this state but for people around the world, it’s a phenomenal feeling,” she said.

Lynda Blackmon Lowery, Civil Rights Foot Soldier
Todd Prater of the Selma Sun
Lynda Blackmon Lowery, Civil Rights Foot Soldier

She takes pride in the site and seeing the effort to improve the bridge feels personal to her.

“I call the Edmund Pettus Bridge 'My bridge' because it is a part of my history, and my history is a part of American history,” Lowery said.

With the plans in place and the approval of the survivors of the crossing in hand, Lewis and his team are now focused on raising the funds to make his dream a reality. Their goal is to raise $700,000. They have already gathered over $100,000 toward their goal.

Educating the public about the Civil Rights movement is one thing. For Sheryl Smedley of the local Chamber of Commerce, there are economic issues as well. The number of visitors has been on the decline over the past two years. Smedley said they have taken a hit, but things are starting to turn around.

“Before COVID we did over $70 million in tourism here for Dallas County. That was an increase of over 14%," she said. "Our numbers have decreased but they are on the rise again. We could have over 100,000 a year come and visit.”

That could mean more people learning about the attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and perhaps an economic shot in the arm for businesses and residents of Selma.

This feature was done in collaboration with Cindy Fisher and Todd Prater from the Selma Sun. 

News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.