Distraction Free Reading

Heritage, Memory, and Infrastructure

President Obama, congressman John Lewis, former President George W. Bush, and Civil Rights Movement veterans and other commemoration attendees marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March, 2015

The Obamas and the Bushes continue across the bridge. (Public Domain)

There are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war – Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character – Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral. Selma is such a place. In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge. (President Barack Obama, March 2015)

Standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 March to Montgomery, President Obama delivered these words to honor the traumatic history of Bloody Sunday. With “history me[eting] on this bridge,” the bridge stood as a sinister totem to a period of violence that Obama, as the first Black president, had seemingly redeemed, representing the promise of a new American nation that elected what it had once lynched. Obama then led a group of civil rights activists, current Alabama residents, and former American politicians in a symbolic walk over the bridge as part of the annual Jubilee festival, a heritage event held to commemorate all who marched on Bloody Sunday. The “march to freedom,” however, was not over. Obama closed his speech with these words, and only a month after the commemoration, an unarmed Black man named Freddie Gray died under suspicious circumstances in Baltimore police custody. His death reignited support for the then-nascent Black Lives Matter movement, which adopted both the protest tactics and the uncompromising critique of the police for which the march to Selma is now known. Gray’s death affirmed that the march to freedom was certainly not over, and the history of the bridge still resonates today (Monteith 2013). When the late Senator John Lewis passed away in 2020, following a summer of racial unrest, a team of horses pulled his casket across the bridge in homage to his decades of civil rights activism.

In the present, the Edmund Pettus Bridge sits at the intersection of the material and the theoretical. Physically, just as it did in 1965, the bridge connects cars and pedestrians from Montgomery to Selma. Theoretically, however, the bridge connects theories of infrastructure to theories of heritage, as the annual commemorative walk and the accompanying museum ‘heritagize’ the still-wounding trauma of the bridge’s past. This double life is not unique. All over the world, political movements, wars, suicides, and interpersonal violence have transformed banal, everyday infrastructures that support human life into sites emblazoned with the dark histories they staged. Unlike some heritage landscapes, which, in being designated heritage, are removed from everyday use (Herzfeld 2015), structures like the Edmund Pettus Bridge are not isolated. These historic places resist routinization and demand a form of visibility.

How do violence, heritage, and the ‘heritagization’ of violence push the literature on infrastructure into new dimensions? Scholarship on infrastructure generally maintains two ideas: first, that infrastructures are most visible when they malfunction (Star 1999; von Schnitzler 2016; Nemser 2017; Appel et al. 2018); and second, that infrastructural projects are often future-oriented, designed to signal technological progress and uplifting development (Dawdy 2010; Hoffman 2017). However, the example of the Edmund Pettus Bridge suggests that when infrastructures function as they are designed to and, in their functioning, support exceptional acts of violence, it is their functioning – rather than their malfunctioning – that can ‘light up’ their taken-for-granted materiality. Moreover, through heritage rituals of remembrance, these structures can remain alight even after the violence ends, illuminating not the modern future but the traumatic past. Together, these critiques suggest that when discussions of heritage meet theories of infrastructure, a richer analysis develops.

The March

On March 7, 1965, six hundred civil rights activists – including the late John Lewis – crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama into Montgomery to protest voting disenfranchisement. In Alabama, millions of eligible Black voters had been blocked from voting, and in February of that year, Alabama police had killed an unarmed Black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson as he protested for voting rights. In response, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), both of which had emerged as key political voices in the fight for Black civil rights, scheduled a peaceful protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th.

Alabama Governor George Wallace forbade the march in a televised address, but the protesters continued on, in spite of Wallace’s threat to dispatch state troopers to force any protesters crossing into Montgomery back across the bridge into Selma. As the marchers stepped off the bridge into Montgomery, singing hymns about the determination of the faithful, Wallace’s troops attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. The confrontation became the nation’s “Bloody Sunday,” and that evening, footage of the carnage circulated on the nine o’clock news –– enraging Black Americans and convicting many white Americans. Immediately, two more marches were scheduled: one two days later on March 9th, led by SCLC leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and an even more populous march on March 21st. Together, the three marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge galvanized the movement for voting rights, changing the course of Black civil rights history.

SNCC, which had previously led the 1961 Freedom Rides to protest transportation segregation, correctly guessed that there would be cameras at the March 7th event. In anticipation of the media, SNCC leadership specifically selected the Edmund Pettus Bridge because of the bridge’s visual power: it symbolized the movement’s goal to bridge the gulf between the Voting Rights law and its enactment, which still left Black people disenfranchised (Monteith 2013:298). In treading this material metaphor, the marchers transformed the bridge, even as the bridge continued to function. In so doing, the bridge could not stay just a bridge; as one SNCC organizer stated, “What happened as a result of that decision [to march] has fixed the bridge in most minds today in a manner that its designers and earlier Chambers of Commerce could not have imagined” (as quoted in Monteith 2013:297).

On that day, the Edmund Pettus Bridge never failed to do what it was designed to do: it stood strong and arched over the Alabama River as it connected Selma to Montgomery, but in so functioning, it simultaneously facilitated the violent confrontation between the police and the peaceful demonstrators. On that day, the bridge became a traumatic stage, and as Monteith (2013) argues, the bridge continues to fold past traumas into the present as the American nation still grapples with racial capitalism, segregation, and political disenfranchisement.

Once just a bridge, this structure is now a “memory site” that still supports protests (2013:286). Bloody Sunday has evolved from one day of violence into a shorthand for the Civil Rights movement as a whole, and today, the bridge is a site of pilgrimage. Visitors routinely flock to the bridge for the annual Jubilee walk, but they also visit the nearby museum, and for those who cannot physically make it to the bridge, photographs, television programs, museum exhibitions, and feature films about the bridge’s history are easy to find. Moreover, these pilgrimages resist the banality of the bridge’s ‘bridge-ness’ and instead make the bridge sacred and historical. As one example, the Black choreographer Ralph Lemon traveled to the bridge to perform a choreographed dance designed to actively counteract the fact that the bridge is now “just a bridge, a routine piece of infrastructure” (Birns 2005:19). In so doing, Lemon drew attention to how “the banality of the present…calls attention to the violence of the past” (Birns 2005:19).

Lemon recognized that the bridge’s almost apathetic banality can wound unless pilgrims actively recall what historical violence the structure staged, often through practices of heritage commemoration. As commemorative events highlight the built environment of a haunted infrastructure, heritage projects can yoke functioning infrastructures to deeply traumatic pasts that may reference the future, but that often do not.

The Heritage of Violence

Spatial understandings of violence help to root this analysis in broader anthropological literature. Violence is an ever-present feature of cultural anthropological literature, but it is often spatially undertheorized (Jansen and Löfving 2009). In archaeology, accounts of violence tend to be more spatially and materially aware (Walker 2001; González-Ruibal 2017, 2006), and these analyses can also unearth more insidious, less physical violence – for example by excavating archaeologies of internment in southern Africa (Weiss 2011) and Australia (Casella 2012). Together, these archaeological studies highlight the difference between physical and structural violence, a distinction developed through the work of Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (1969). Galtung maintains that structural violence limits the potential of a group, while physical violence is the wounds that are often (but not always) externalized on the body.

González-Ruibal and Moshenska (2015:3), however, suggest that physical and structural violences are not so diametrically opposed, for “we have moved a long way from the battlefield, into the workplace, the home, and the everyday.” They offer, instead, the “heritage of violence,” which acknowledges not only the entanglement of physical injuries and more invisible violences but also the folding of the past into the present: past violences continue to structure everyday lives, as violences “write themselves powerfully and often indelibly onto the material and social worlds” (González-Ruibal and Moshenska 2015:5).
The Edmund Pettus Bridge seems to exist within this analytic, as a heritage of violence makes allowances for structural violence like systemic racism, which can then erupt into discrete moments of physical violence, like a militarized attack on peaceful protesters. Moreover, a heritage of violence recognizes that these discrete moments of physical violence can continue to influence a people’s mobility and material engagement with place. Discrete episodes of violence – whether over one day or over several years – are never actually discrete; through heritage and commemorative events, they continue to shape people’s geographies of safety, affect, and belonging.

When considered alongside the literature on infrastructure, the heritage of violence helps to distinguish between infrastructures of violence and infrastructures that have staged violence. The gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example, are infrastructures of violence specifically designed to enact physical harm. Infrastructures of violence can also support more structural violence in their designs: for example, the engineers, contractors, and administrators of penal infrastructures collectively design for confinement – both confinement of prisoners away from the body politic, but also the segregation of particular criminals away from other incarcerated groups. Prisons come into being to fulfill these purposes, and while they may be used alternatively, the built environment generally supports the intentionality of its design. The Edmund Pettus Bridge, in contrast, was not explicitly designed to help police subdue black bodies with batons and tear gas. Instead, in its routine functioning as the connective tissue between one place and another, this bridge facilitated violence that the engineers had not anticipated. As a stage for violence, it became an unintentional theater of harm.

This bridge stands in contrast to heritage sites where the violence of a place works in tandem with its materiality. For example, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum features the excavated footprints of the Twin Towers, with each cavern speaking to the horrors of that day. The Edmund Pettus Bridge, in contrast, requires a daily enactment of heritage practices to recall the horror, and speaking about a similar dynamic with Bosnian bridges that staged mass murder, Björkdahl and Selimovic state that these sites “form a setting or background for the activities of daily life, while also being intentionally activated at particular times when subjective agents come together for political action” (Björkdahl and Selimovic 2016:325, emphasis added). Through film, through the circulation of photographs and videos on social media, through the Jubilee Walk, and through public funerary events for civil rights icons, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is continually reactivated for political action – continually invoked as more than just a piece of infrastructure.

When Infrastructures Assemble

This frenzy of commemorative activity around the Edmund Pettus Bridge is understandable, but it was never inevitable: not all infrastructures that stage violence become sites of heritage. To conclude, I want to suggest that the circulatory infrastructure of the media has helped to make these connections between a traumatic infrastructure and an audience. Filmed footage of the bridge’s performances of violence has fused with present-day social media posts to create an always-present digital cloud around the bridge. I propose that it is this interplay of the visual, tangible infrastructure of the bridges and the circulation of media through digital infrastructures that have canonized this performance of violence, consequently making the Edmund Pettus Bridge available for heritage. In elevating these performances of violence to the exceptional, circulating media have helped to transform this functioning, even banal infrastructure into a heritage landscape, ripe for dark tourism and for visually powerful ceremonies of remembrance. Of course, people do commemorate infrastructures that have staged violent events that were never filmed, and some sites that the media deems important may never attract an audience. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the media still plays a significant role both in bounding past violence into an identifiable event and in staging infrastructures as pilgrimage sites to visit in the present. The infrastructure of the media, then, can ‘light up’ the infrastructure of a bridge.

Consequently, just as a single infrastructure is already an assemblage of people, places, and materials (Simone 2004), so can infrastructures act in a network together. This assemblage of infrastructures can then also draw attention to each infrastructure’s present-at-handedness. The circulation of television footage framed the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a site of violence, and the modern-day circulation of commemorative events over social media continues to illuminate the disjuncture between the bridge’s banal functionalities and its traumatic history. By bringing together infrastructural and heritage literature, this piece attempts to challenge the conventions of reading (in)visibility and temporality into infrastructures. However, the case study also hints at a third thesis: that infrastructures can light up other infrastructures – not only through malfunction but also through violence and its commemoration.

References Cited

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