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Government, Politics & Issues

Ceremony marks renaming of Poplar Street Bridge for Clay, but will old name still stick?

Lacy and Bill clay, Gov. Jay Nixon, Mayor Slay - need ID on woman
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2013: Retired U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr. – Missouri’s first African-American in Congress – joked that it was "payback'' that his name will replace that of former St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann as the official title for the bridge still informally known as the Poplar Street Bridge.

In 1980, while he was in Congress, Clay sponsored the bill that renamed the St. Louis post office to -- you guessed it -- the Bernard F. Dickmann Post Office.

Dickmann, elected in 1933 as the city's first Democratic mayor in decades, would understand, Clay quipped during the ceremony this morning to dedicate the new name for the bridge: the Congressman William L. Clay Sr. Bridge.

The Missouri General Assembly agreed this spring to change the name and honor Clay, passing a bill sponsored by state Rep. Penny Hubbard, D-St. Louis.

But Mayor Francis Slay, one of the notables speaking at the ceremony, acknowledged the problem with any official name for the Poplar Street Bridge: So far, no other name has stuck.

The Missouri stretch of the bridge previously was named for Dickmann ever since the bridge was completed in the late 1960s. But despite signs erected to the contrary, people generally call it the “Poplar Street Bridge” – the name given the structure during its construction.

"St. Louisans on both sides of the river have a habit of calling things by names other than what were given to them," Slay said, blaming "early traffic reporters'' for perpetrating the "Poplar Street'' moniker.

"Henceforth, please refer to this bridge ... as the William L. Clay Sr. bridge,'' Slay said, touching off chuckles and cheers among the audience at the dedication, in a park just across from the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse, 111 S. 10th St.

"The bridge and the congressman deserve the honor."

The mayor was among a series of speakers -- including Gov. Jay Nixon, current U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. and the elder Clay -- who also touched on the importance of bridges, by any name.

Slay, for example, noted that Dickmann had created the region's Democratic political alliance that reached out to African-American voters and that generally still stands.

That alliance, several said, led to Clay's election in 1968 as Missouri's first African-American member of Congress -- a position he held until he retired after the 2000 election. His son now holds the seat.

While in Congress, the elder Clay was a key mover of the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, and of legislation to vest workers in their pensions after five years on the job.

Earlier, the elder Clay had served on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and had led many civil-rights marches and actions, including the 1963 protest outside Jefferson Bank as a call for more minorities to be hired.

Clay lauded as a bridge to greater equality

Nixon said that Clay and other civil rights figures of his generation had served "as a bridge'' to greater equality for all. The elder Clay, said Nixon, "always stood on the right side of history.''

His son, the current congressman, observed that "bridges are made of steel,'' and lauded the elder Clay as someone who displayed steely resolve. "Segregation was defeated by building bridges of courage,'' the younger Clay said.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, left, talks with his father, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay at the ceremony naming the Poplar Street Bridge for the senior Clay.
Credit File photo I Bill Greenblatt | UPI

The retired congressman, in turn, noted the significance of bridges to the civil rights struggle -- and to regular people's lives.

Clay recalled the "Bloody Sunday'' horror in March 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, when law enforcement authorities used tear gas and clubs against civil rights marchers.

The TV coverage of that event, said Clay, helped change the narrative of the civil-rights struggle and, he said, contributed to his election to Congress in 1968.

Closer to home, Clay recalled how his father daily traveled on the McKinley Bridge to his job in Granite City, Ill.

While in government, Clay said, "My mission in Congress for 32 years was to build bridges to carry resources to economically underprivileged and those discriminated because of race, gender and age."

Those still engaged in the fight against "hatred and ignorance," he said, his message was "to ignore that group of idiots that want to destroy bridges provided by government assistance."

"Government has a sacred responsibility to play a major role in building bridges that elevate the standard of living for its citizens,'' Clay said. "Bridges must enable the working poor to move into the middle class, and for our seniors to live the remainder of their lives in dignity.

"Bridges take people to untold opportunities ... from poverty to prosperity, from hopeless to dreams fulfilled,'' he said. "Government must provide the bridges that guarantee a good education for its citizens, a decent job with adequate pay and health benefits, a nice home in a safe neighborhood."

"Bridges have played an important and indispensable role in my life," the elder Clay concluded. "Thanks for remembering that bridges have made my life worth living."

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