In life, Michael Starr Hopkins only had an opportunity to meet civil rights legend John Lewis in passing. He'd been to events that Lewis had attended. He even shook his hand once or twice and exchanged a few words. But following his death, Hopkins' efforts may go a long way to create yet another legacy for the 'Boy from Troy.'
Nearly a week following the death of Lewis, the push to rename the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. has only gained momentum. An online petition created last month by Hopkins before the civil rights leader's death has now garnered over 500,000 signatures, including that of the director Ava DuVernay, whose Oscar-nominated film “Selma” recreated the confrontation.
Lewis and the Edmund Pettus Bridge are forever linked in history. Lewis was one of several peaceful protesters who suffered serious injuries on the bridge in 1965 during a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The protesters were attacked by Alabama state troopers with tear gas and clubs on what later became known as "Bloody Sunday." Lewis suffered a skull fracture during the melee .
Hopkins, a lawyer and founding partner at Northern Starr Strategies, a public relations firm, started a nonprofit called the John Lewis Bridge Project to promote the renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the “removal of other existing signs of the Confederacy.” Hopkins says he came up with the idea after doing a deep dive into the history of the bridge, and learning who it was named for, after watching 'Selma."
Edmund Pettus, was a former soldier in the Confederate Army who also served as a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.
"I watched the film and at the end of the movie I realized I had no idea who Edmund Pettus was," Hopkins said. "After doing my research I learned he was a horrible person. An all around bad person."
Hopkins created the petition and shot it out to a few celebrity acquaintances hoping to raise awareness and went to sleep. He said when he woke the next morning it had "blown up."
The idea had gained support from some in Congress including Lewis' close friend and colleague Rep. Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C. The two men met 60 years ago and served in Congress together for 27 years.) Clyburn said on "Meet the Press" that it's long past time to rethink who's name is on that bridge.
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"Pettus was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan," Clyburn said. "Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man - John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America - rather than honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms."
"Non-violence was a way of life for John," Clyburn added. "He had credibility that none of us had. None of us made the sacrifices John made."
While Clyburn's endorsement of his close friend is to be expected, the effort also gained support from the most unlikeliest of people. Caroline Randall Williams, the great-granddaughter of Edmund Pettus, also expressed her support for removing his name. During an interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, Williams said removing her ancestor's name would “put that bridge on the right side of history.”
But, there's resistance as well. There are those that argue placing Lewis' name alone on the bridge would do a disservice to the others who marched and were injured during Bloody Sunday.
"It's a fair concern," concedes Hopkins. "There were a lot of foot soldiers that were there. But John Lewis is a son of Alabama. He's someone who had dedicated his life to bringing the country together. And just as Repp Clyburn said I can't think of anyone better to name that bridge after."
"Change is uncomfortable and stirs up old feelings, added Hopkins. "But John Lewis always talked about getting into 'good trouble. Sometimes you have to stir things up to get things done."