Photo by Joe Bailey
By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—
Sunday, March 7 saw droves of activists march across the Walnut Street Bridge in remembrance of the violence enacted against peaceful civil rights protesters in Selma, AL exactly 56 years prior.
March 7, 1965 was the day which saw thousands of activists walk the 54-mile stretch of highway connecting Selma and Montgomery, AL. Civil rights figureheads such as John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. were among the crowd. At the march, state troopers and anti-black groups infamously beat and tear gassed protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This characteristically violent response from law enforcement later earned March 7 the title “Bloody Sunday.”
Selma is certainly not the only example of violence aimed at proponents of racial justice in the United States. Cattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge was the site of multiple lynchings, including the murder of Alfred Blout in 1893 and Ed Johnson in 1906. Local activist and former city council candidate Marie Mott said that the bridge long stood as a symbol of segregation, acting as a barrier between the white and black halves of the city.
Mott’s was a leading voice at the remembrance. For her, Bloody Sunday is about more than just Selma. In 2021, the title speaks to the persisting historical trend of violence against African Americans, as well as the countless sacrifices made in the name of civil rights and social justice over the years.
“We want to elevate the consciousness of the people that there is still a grave problem with what we call modern lynchings, which are police killings and abuses of power,” Mott said.
More than simply acknowledging issues, Mott said she hopes their work will inspire local policy makers to take steps to further projects such as police reform and the elimination of voter suppression.
C-Grimey, another Chattanooga activist and leader at the remembrance, echoed these sentiments.
“There are small, tangible things we can implement now, like the Breonna Taylor Act and the Breathe Act, to help stop police brutality,” he said.
Grimey said that there are young people of all demographics in Chattanooga who are ready to get something done and make their voices heard. The local response to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 was testament enough to this fact.
“You can look at some of the more polarizing cases around the country where an unarmed black man, for minor crime or no crimes at all, have been murdered, live in 4K,” he said. “From the 90’s until 2018, less than 1% of beatings and killings were accounted for in a court of law.”
The solution, as Grimey sees it, is to fundamentally change the way we look at public safety and law enforcement in the United States.
Before the walk from Coolidge Park to the Ed Johnson Memorial construction site at the southern end of the Walnut Street Bridge, remembrance leaders handed out flowers to each participant.
What followed was a procession across the water, marked by the repeated mantra, “black lives matter,” amplified by a megaphone. Some passersby yelled words of encouragement and solidarity, while others said nothing at all. Flower stems strung through belt loops and tucked behind ears left a faint trail of petals across the bridge’s well-tread boards.
Mott stopped the group at the middle of the bridge to say a few words about its history.
“So this bridge, where tourists cross all the time and don’t think about what it stands for—for someone like me, as a native Chattanoogan,” Mott said. “So much pain, so much anguish, and a sign of the struggling times we are in, where we are trying to reconcile, not based on race, but the fact that we are all human beings.”
While the Walnut Street Bridge once symbolized division, Mott said that it has now been granted the opportunity to be known as a locus for unification—a true bridge, not a barrier. But for that to happen, Chattanoogans must recognize the problems inherent in the system, which lift up some at the expense of others.
The imagery and symbolic weight of the Walnut Street Bridge played a major role in Mott’s campaign for city council.
“When I came on the bridge, it was the first time I had ever walked this bridge as an adult,” Mott said. “And I got up early in the morning at 9 a.m., with nobody on this bridge but me, and I couldn’t make it past the first rung without falling to my knees and crying.”
Mott said that she ultimately wants reconciliation, but that reconciliation requires work.
With that, the group forged on, stopping next at the unfinished Ed Johnson memorial. Participants placed their flowers at the edge of the construction site and looked on as Mott and Grimey shared their closing remarks.
“It took almost ten years to get one statue for one black man who was lynched in Chattanooga,” Mott said.
Headed by the Ed Johnson Project, the memorial symbolizes progress, but also urges those celebrating to remember the sacrifices that got them there.
“We want to start commemorating more victories than sacrifices,” Grimey said.
One thing Bloody Sunday, the Walnut Street Bridge and the Ed Johnson Memorial all have in common is their ability to build positive change on the foundation of historical injustice and violence. The way they do this is simple: They help people remember.
After speeches had ended, pictures were taken and the crowd had dispersed, flowers remained on the pavement as yet another reminder.