In 2010, I was lucky enough to co-lead a Civil Rights Pilgrimage of college students from Wisconsin to the U.S. South and back to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. It was January and a busload of students and leaders made our way down to Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis and back home to Milwaukee.
Along the way, we spent two days in Selma, Alabama. Little did we know what this visit had in store for us.
In Selma, our host was JoAnne Bland, founder of Journeys for the Soul tour company. Bland has a unique perspective and authority to give such a tour: She was 11 years old when she crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965—a day that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. She and her sisters were also there two days later on what is known as Turnaround Tuesday.
During our time in Selma, we learned about the history of the area and its importance in the Civil Rights Movement. We visited sites such as historic Brown Chapel AME Church, worked together in service of a local church and learning center, shared meals and heard from local leaders who told us their stories, showed us photos and shed tears with us. One of these men was Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Reese, pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, where we attended a service that Sunday.
On a walking tour of Selma, Bland took us to the National Voting Rights Museum (which she co-founded), by murals and monuments to John Lewis and others, and last, to a piece of cement in view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We stopped and she explained that we were standing where the group of over 600 people stopped on their fated march towards the bridge on Bloody Sunday.
On that spot, she told us of her fear, of the anticipation, and of the ordinary people about to change history that day. She told us to pick up a rock and hold it in our hands. She pointed to our rocks and said, “John Lewis stood on that rock,” or “You have Reverend Reese’s rock.” She even told one lucky student, “That one there was my rock.” We kept those rocks in our hands as she took us solemnly, two-by-two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life and one that I will never forget.
During the last few months, as COVID has ravaged the US and the world and thousands of people across the country have stood up in sustained protest against police brutality and racial injustice against Black citizens, I felt compelled to reconnect with JoAnne Bland to get her take on our current moment.
Karla J. Strand: So you were born and raised in Selma, Alabama, and you were involved in the Civil Rights Movement starting early on in childhood. How did that begin for you?
JoAnne Bland: My grandma. I was three when my mom died and my grandmother came to the funeral; she stayed to help rear us along with my dad. She had lived in the Midwest and had different ideas than most of the women around us. I grew up in George Washington Carver Homes here in Selma; it’s a housing project, but it wasn’t the housing project you know today. It was a whole different thing; it was a neighborhood and they were proud to even live there.
And we had no idea we were poor. I might’ve been the dumbest person in that generation [laughing], but I didn’t know we were poor. If anyone had asked me at that time to classify myself I would’ve said middle class; I didn’t know. Because we always had an abundance. We were never hungry. Everybody in the neighborhood shared. It was just a community, you know?
And Grandma, having lived in Detroit for like 35 years, she had some freedoms that we didn’t have in the South. She started talking to the women in the community about it and they introduced her to Mrs. [Amelia] Boynton. And Mrs. Boynton and her husband Sam had formed an organization to try to register African-Americans in the community to vote called the Dallas County Voters League. And Grandma would take us to the meetings and we had to sit there and listen quietly while they strategized on getting this thing called “freedom.”
Now personally, I thought they were the dumbest old people in America because I already knew that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves; it was obvious they didn’t. And one day, I was downtown with my grandmother in Selma. Well, one of the shops had a lunch counter and I wanted to sit at the lunch counter, but my grandma said I couldn’t because it was for white children only. It didn’t stop me from wanting to sit at that counter.
Every time I passed by, I’d see those white kids in there and I’d be peeking in that window wishing it was me. One day, Grandma was talking to one of her friends in front of the store and I was looking in the window like I always do at those white kids wishing it was me and my grandmother noticed me looking in the window. And she leans over my shoulder, she pointed through the window to the counter and she said, “If we get our freedom, you can do that too.” I became a freedom fighter that day. That was when I understood the connection between voting and being able to sit at that counter. I wanted to sit at that counter and Grandma said if I had my freedom I could. So I started going down this church with my older sisters, down to First Baptist, to the meetings of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. And that’s how I got involved.
KJS: And you were around 8 you said at that time? And about 11 when Bloody Sunday occurred.
KJS: So what do you recall from that time and how has it impacted you long-term?
JB: Oh man, [March 7, 1965] had to be the most terrifying day of my life. I’ve never experienced anything like it since and I hope not to ever again. The terror that I felt on that bridge turned into, as my sister can say, determination. I was determined even though I was afraid and on Turnaround Tuesday, I tried to [turn] back, but my sisters, thank God, wouldn’t let me. Because when I crested that bridge and saw the same scene [of state troopers], I was so terrified, I tried to go back. But [that day], nothing happened, we prayed and we turned around and came back. But after that, I was determined to do whatever I could to be a part of this.
In later years, I express it as being a part of the puzzle for social change. I became determined and it instilled in me that when I see injustice that I have to get up and do something. And I think that came from the way I grew up and experiencing what I experienced on that bridge.
KJS: I wonder how you’ve seen Selma change over time.
JB: I didn’t get a chance to sit at the counter. I think some young men decided to integrate it and [people] destroyed the store and when the store reopened they didn’t put it back in. But then I saw that my grandmother could go in stores and we didn’t have to go to the basement of some stores. We could go upstairs where the white people went, you know, there were actual laws to prevent us from doing things, so those laws changed. And I heard a white man call my grandmother Mrs. Johnson—”Mrs. Johnson, how you doing?” [laughing]—instead of by her first name as if they were her peers.
And then I left. I joined the Army and when I came back, I saw lots of changes. You know, there were businesses on Broad Street that were not only run by Blacks; they were owned by Blacks. But then after I was home for a while, they became surface changes to me, you know, the power was still in the hands of the oppressor. Now you allow me to rent one of your buildings so I can open a place—but the power still in the hands of the same people who made those laws for segregation? They still were in power making laws to hurt us. But I met people that were doing things in Selma to enlighten our people; that knew these were surface changes: “We want more than that, don’t you want more than that?”
We wanted to be a part of the power that made laws that affect our communities as well as their communities. If no power lies in the hands of the people who are represented in the city, then you still have a problem. And that’s the way it was in Selma when I came back home.
We had the same mayor for 36 years. The same mayor that was on the bridge in 1965 was the mayor when I came back to Selma. Go figure. So how could there be any real collective change? But I went to a city council meeting and the heads of the departments most of them were African American, you know, I was proud of that. I was proud of that when I realized they reported to the same mayor and that there were still many issues that affected our community. When you live here you realize that a lot has changed but not enough. Not enough.
We elected our first Black mayor in the year 2000, after 36 years of the same mayor. Then we had a fight about a Nathan Bedford Forrest monument. We were in the street just like in the ‘60s because Forrest was one of the worst slave owners to be because he bred human beings like cattle and sold them. He was a slave breeder, not the typical plantation owner; he was the worst kind. And he was also [the first Grand Dragon] of the Ku Klux Klan.
So as soon as we elected our first African-American mayor, this organization decided they would erect a monument to this man, this awful person in a town that was about 80 percent African American. And I personally was offended because look at the timing. If you study the history of these monuments that they’re talking about now and when they were erected, you will see that they were only done when there was some sort of either gain in the African American community or they were erected if we were out protesting and they knew they were going to lose that battle to so they put these statues up to intimidate. I [thought] every time I looked at that monument, they’re not honoring a hero. They said, “We may have a Negro mayor but we still here, okay?”
So they lost that battle because it was moved from one of the museums, where they dedicated it, to a cemetery that’s here in Selma, our oldest white cemetery. It was moved there and they were not happy, but it’s there. And we have people in Selma that say it shouldn’t even be there—but I decided that I have to pick my battles, you know, every battle is not yours. I felt like it’s in this cemetery, none of my relatives are out there, I don’t have to go out there and see an-y-thing. Anything. And I may be wrong for that, other people may disagree with that, but I see no reason that I have to go to that cemetery unless I want to. Unless I choose to.
Now, I don’t really disagree with people who say it shouldn’t be there. [But] moving that monument out of Selma will not change one heart here in Selma. Not one. You got to find a way to change hearts. You got to make people feel. That’s why I work so hard with my tours. When you come — and you’ve been here — I want you to feel it. I want you all these years later to do exactly what you did: still be thinking about it, still be doing what you’re supposed to be doing to further the agenda. You have to be in touch with this. You can’t just hear the history and not feel it. You have to connect to it. So I hope that’s what I do with my tour.