Thornton Dial’s The Bridge, 1997 John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park, Atlanta

First off, I blame myself. It was a Friday afternoon, and I stayed at work until around 6 pm before jumping in the car. Three hours later, I’m passing through the center of Selma, Alabama, looking for a place to stay. Very upfront about their pricing, the hotels and motels of Selma put it all right there in the big, bright lights of their signage. $119. $99. $79, $49. And then I saw it: $29 a night. I wasn’t planning to stay long, but a quick loop around the parking lot gave me everything I needed. Thofugh shabby, the place was empty. After a pleasant surprise at check-in, the plan was to turn in early and be at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at sunrise. Then the party started. Around 1 am, blurry-eyed, I peered from the window, attempting to locate the noise. The empty parking lot was suddenly full of 200 cars, each with its own music. Any out of their cars could be found in the room next to mine. Two rooms were booked in the whole motel, and we were side-by-side. My call to the front desk was met with fear; they asked me not to cause commotion and to switch rooms silently. The next day, I made it to the bridge at a remarkably early hour.

Parking downtown, there’s an immediate sense of stepping back in time. Selma was silent. Approaching the bridge, I was filled with anticipation and reverence. With its steel arches and expansive views, the structure is a silent witness to the struggles and triumphs of those who marched to the best and the worst of humanity. You reach the bridge’s midpoint, and the emotional weight of Bloody Sunday in 1965 hits you like a ton of bricks. You become acutely aware of the echoes of footsteps from the past. The confrontation and courage that marked civil rights heroes like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. became almost palpable. Emotions flow from sorrow to admiration and back again to pure sadness. I tried to focus on the gratitude, but the sadness of the place kept winning out.

I think of this experience each weekday as I drive my daughter to school down Ponce de Leon Avenue. Each day, we pass by Thornton Dial’s The Bridge, 1997, his monumental tribute to John Lewis and the enduring struggle for civil rights. Placed in John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park, Atlanta, the 42-foot-long assemblage of found objects and mixed media poignantly captures the essence of Lewis’s lifelong quest for equality and justice. Dial’s work, dedicated in 2005, not only commemorates Lewis’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement but also weaves together a narrative that speaks to the historical, social, and political struggles faced by African Americans in the US, while at the same time resonates with the local history of community activism against urban gentrification.

Thornton Dial, born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama, grew up in the rural South, experiencing the harsh realities of segregation and poverty. His work often reflects these early experiences, addressing themes such as racism, homelessness, and war. Dial’s art is known for using found objects and transforming everyday materials into powerful visual narratives. This method is evident in The Bridge, where he arranges tires, barrels, and other discarded items to form a bridge-like structure that symbolizes Lewis’s crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during that historic day in 1965. 

Dial’s connection to Lewis is profound. Both men were born to sharecropping families in Alabama and rose to prominence from humble beginnings. Lewis became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, participating in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches. His leadership on Bloody Sunday, where police brutally attacked him and other marchers, highlighted his unwavering dedication to the cause. Lewis’s dedication to civil rights and his role as a congressman resonated deeply with Dial, who saw in Lewis a kindred spirit. Through this sculpture, Dial not only honors Lewis’s contributions but also reflects on his own experiences and the collective journey of African Americans seeking equality and justice.

The Bridge is rich with layered symbolism and metaphors. Dial’s use of found objects imbues the sculpture with deeper meanings. Rubber hoses and electrical conduits suggest the intertwined themes of segregation and societal barriers, while twisted ropes evoke the painful legacy of slavery and lynching. The trees in the sculpture have a cyclical nature of life, and the enduring impact of those who came before us and regeneration suggest that from death and destruction can come new growth. Abstract wire marchers on the bridge represent the countless individuals who participated in the civil rights movement, while birds perched on the bridge’s suspensions symbolize freedom and the aspirations of movement and hope. 

The Bridge is two-sided. One side of the sculpture is pointed towards the skyscrapers and buildings of the cityscape of Atlanta. This is marked by a small car, with big circular wheels and significant highlights, lighting the path along the way. This is a path that many from rural towns took, from the fields to industrialization. Atlanta has always been this promise. Behind the car is a figure pushing the bumper. The family that sacrifices stay brave. The other side of the sculpture is led by a mighty horse constructed of a metal frame covering a tire. This is the other end of the metaphor, the broader African American experience during the Great Migration. Millions moved from the rural South to urban areas in search of better lives, and many more stayed behind. They continued the backbreaking work in the fields. The horse is unafraid; to the contrary, it marks the resilience of the human spirit. Dial’s depiction of Lewis as the bridge itself underscores the congressman’s role in connecting disparate communities and advocating for civil rights and social justice. It emphasizes his unbreakable strength. 

Beyond its national significance, The Bridge also connects to Atlanta’s local history of activism and community resistance. 

The sculpture’s location in Freedom Park results from a successful grassroots campaign against the construction of a planned high-speed expressway to Stone Mountain that threatened to demolish several intown neighborhoods (significant parts Virginia Highlands and Old Fourth Ward). Facing strong opposition from local residents concerned about displacement and environmental impact, the community successfully halted the freeway’s construction through sustained protests and legal battles, resulting in the creation of Freedom Park. This victory preserved the character and integrity of these communities and now serves as a testament to the power of grassroots activism and the importance of preserving neighborhoods.

Dial’s The Bridge is more than just a sculpture; it is a profound statement on the enduring fight for civil rights and social justice. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of remembering and honoring the struggles of the past while continuing to strive for a more just and equitable future. Like my day in Selma, those who visit the work are invited to reflect on the sacrifices made by civil rights leaders like John Lewis and draw inspiration from their unwavering commitment to justice and human dignity.