The death of US Rep. John Lewis on Friday has renewed calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, after the civil rights legend.
The push to rename the bridge comes amid a national conversation around monuments, names and symbols that celebrate the Confederacy and their place in America today. The bridge’s namesake, Edmund Pettus, was a Confederate general and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
At age 25, Lewis helped lead the 1965 march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police who brutally beat them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull.
The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and galvanized Americans’ support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Michael Starr Hopkins, 33, launched a petition for the name change on June 17 in hopes the bridge would be renamed while Lewis was still alive. The petition on Change.org had more than 490,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
“If it was left to Edmund Pettus, people who look like me would still be in shackles,” Hopkins told CNN. “The idea that we would honor him by allowing his name on the bridge is antithetical for everything this country stands for, especially when we have so many heroes like John Lewis who dedicated their entire lives to bringing the country together.”
Hopkins was inspired to launch the petition after attending several Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, DC, where he lives.
After coming home from one protest “emotionally drained from watching [his] city burn,” he decided to watch the film “Selma,” where he discovered who Pettus was during a scene depicting the 1965 march.
After learning more about this history of the man behind the bridge, Hopkins said he was horrified and immediately started a petition calling for the renaming of the bridge.
By the end of the month, Hopkins founded the “John Lewis Bridge Project,” a non-profit organization petitioning for the name change.
“This country needs to reflect on who we are. The bridge is a symbol, but this is about more than just the bridge. It’s about rebuilding Selma, a primarily African American community that has been forgotten,” he said.
“It’s about making sure kids have access to education, parents have access to better jobs, it’s about improving people’s lives. That was the purpose of the march in 1965, and that’s the purpose of the John Lewis Bridge Project.”
The movement also picked up steam on social media after “Selma” director Ava DuVernay issued a statement supporting the petition to rename the bridge.
“I’ve just signed a petition about this bridge to dignity as seen in SELMA,” DuVernay tweeted. “It is named after a KKK grand wizard and confederate warlord. Edmund Pettus Bridge should be the John Lewis Bridge. Named for a hero. Not a murderer. Join this call. It’s past due.”
The Lincoln Project, a super PAC formed by anti-Donald Trump Republicans, quoted a tweet from Preet Bharara that showed Lewis standing before the bridge, saying, “Abe stands with my friend Preet. Let’s honor this good man by renaming the bridge.”
CNN’s Nicky Robertson and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.