An activist and his uphill effort to rename bridge in Selma for John Lewis

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(Photo by Greg Garrison/AL.com)

By Melanie Eversley, The Grio

A homeless activist and a popular radio host are pushing a unique way to honor civil rights icon John Lewis, the U.S. congressman representing Atlanta who is undergoing a life challenge.

Jorge Anderson El, a disabled Air Force veteran out of Southern California, has created a petition to rename a landmark bridge that was key in the Civil Rights Movement after the Lewis, 79, who announced in December that he is battling stage four pancreatic cancer. The petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., is going viral on a platform overseen by the Color of Change civil rights organization. As of Wednesday morning, the petition had 8,973 signatures out of a goal of 9,000. The platform has automatically raised the goal multiple times because the number of signatures keeps surpassing the goal.

Anderson El told theGrio that he got the petition idea from SiriusXM Urban View host Joe Madison. Anderson El explained that Madison has a way of inspiring change. On his show last month, Madison pointed out to listeners that Edmund Pettus, for whom the bridge is now named, was a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and confederate leader.

“He (Madison) always asks the question: ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Anderson El said in a telephone interview.

Shortly after Lewis’ announcement about his health, Madison took to the airwaves to suggest the name change for the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a site where state troopers beat Lewis savagely during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights. The seminal event in the Civil Rights Movement has since been known as “Bloody Sunday.”

As a young activist and disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis faced a wall of state troopers armed with batons, whips and tear gas as he and other young leaders led protesters across the bridge on March 7, 1965.

Video on the bridge of Lewis being beaten by state troopers has gone down in the civil rights history annals. During the skirmish, Lewis suffered a fractured skull and injuries that left him with a lifelong speech impediment. It was this violence that prompted King to step into the lead and march forward across the state to Alabama’s capital.

Anderson El, who attended the March on Washington and other major events as a child with his parents, heard Madison’s on-air plea and decided to act. Compounding his decision was the fact that Lewis was the fourth person in his life to be diagnosed with the same kind of cancer.

“I took a few minutes before going to bed and put together the petition,” said Anderson El, 58, who alternates between his car and couch surfing in the Lake Elsinore, Calif., area.

“It’s important that we lift up people that have fought for equality,” Anderson El said. “Me being a veteran, I feel that it’s something that we have to do to promote a better America.”

Madison, reached by phone, said he was motivated by Lewis’ health announcement to suggest the removal of Pettus’ name.

“Pettus was opposed to Reconstruction,” Madison said. “At one point he said civilization could not exist without slavery. This was a died-in-the-wool white supremacist.”

“I wanted people to understand that a generation or two from now when our grandchildren go to Selma and see that bridge,”  he added. “I’d rather them look up and see the name of Congressman John Lewis and ask, ‘Who was John Lewis?’ as opposed to seeing the name of Edmund Pettus.”

Lewis could not be reached for comment.

Like Madison and Anderson El, the country has rallied around Lewis since his cancer announcement. The longtime congressman known as the “conscience of the Congress” is the last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis also was the key engine behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016.

The head of Color of Change said a name change for the bridge is the right thing.

“People are rightly outraged by the fact that this bridge, a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement, is still named after a Confederate general and known racist,” Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, told theGrio. “No one deserves the honor of having their name across that bridge more than legendary leader Congressman John Lewis.”

The petition is featured on OrganizeFor!, a member-led Color of Change platform with more than 1.2 million members nationwide. The platform aims to drive attention to issues relevant to the Black community.

“Thanks to the OrganizeFor! tool, organizers have the resources they need to reach a wider audience with this important cause, and ultimately affect change in the Alabama state house,” Robinson said. “This is why Color of Change is here — to lift up voices who for too long have lacked a megaphone.”

The annual commemoration of that critical event has evolved into an annual civil rights pilgrimage, drawing many important figures including former President Barack Obama, late South African leader Winnie Mandela, actor Terrence Howard, and Rep. Maxine Waters.

While some honor Lewis by attending that bridge remembrance every March, Anderson El chose to honor Lewis from his perspective as an activist struggling with health and housing. He was disabled while training at an Air Force base in Illinois where Agent Orange and other toxins are stored. As a result, he battles fibromyalgia and depression and suffered a heart attack last year related to his toxin exposure.

Though he is fighting with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the bank regarding the loss of his house, he sees the bridge renaming project as worth his time.

“It’s important that we lift up our people who have fought for equality because they’re just as much veterans,” said Anderson El, founder of America’s Disabled Veterans in Action.

The veteran expressed as much in the text he drafted for the petition.

“It’s an important thing to honor Congressman John Lewis who is the son of Alabama,” reads the petition, which goes on to stress it is important to “show that Alabama has changed to understand the importance of civil rights for all people, especially since Congressman Lewis spilled blood on that bridge in 1963.”

Anderson El says that he plans to present the electronic signatures to the Alabama state legislature.

Mark Tuggle, chief of staff to Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said via email that no one in the office was aware of any effort to change the name of the bridge. Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh responded to a request for comment.  Also, Selma Mayor Darrio Melton did not respond to telephone messages about the petition.

But allies of Lewis applauded the idea.

“I adore that man,” Sally Liuzzo told theGrio in a telephone interview.

Liuzzo is the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit homemaker who volunteered for the Selma marches and was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Sally Liuzzo and her siblings have emerged as voices for their mother, appearing around the country to advocate for civil rights causes. She has traveled to Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday with Lewis.

Liuzzo, who lives in Johnson City, Tenn., said she completely endorses the bridge idea.

“I think it’s so deserved because not only did he lose his life on that bridge, he has given his entire life to serving the cause,” she said. “There can be no greater honor than looking up and seeing John Lewis Bridge. That Edmund Pettus needs to get off of there.”

Madison believes the time to honor Lewis is now, while he can know his sacrifice is being recognized. “I don’t want to wait until John is no longer with us and say, ‘OK, let’s name the bridge,’ ” he said. “I want to see John Lewis standing at the foot of that bridge now.”

This article originally appeared in The Grio.

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