The following interview is in recognition of Black History Month – but most importantly, I share it because every single word of this interview – our history – must be heard and remembered.
The summer of 2002 changed everything I had been taught about this country, the people in it and ultimately – me. I had just finished my junior year of college at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and I found myself with a group of 16 strangers loading my suitcase into the back of a conversion van for a road trip – destination Selma, Alabama. What in the world was a 21 year old white girl from small-town Wisconsin doing heading to Selma? Yes, I’ve gotten that question a lot! I, along with my travel companions, headed to Selma to volunteer for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, a grassroots museum that rose out of the shadow of Bloody Sunday, in the light of the strong women that survived it. I eagerly signed up to join this pilgrimage in a quest to understand my world, this country – myself. During our stay in Selma, every person in the group struggled and triumphed; we toiled away as manual labor, beautifying The National Voting Rights Museum and we collected real history through interviews with the most incredible, brave men and women I’ve had the privilege to meet. Our interviews captured their experiences as foot-soldiers of the 1950 – 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, to be housed in the museum – to never be forgotten.
It is my distinct honor to share with you the words of Ms. Joanne Bland, civil rights foot soldier and our hostess during our journey to Selma.
I was born in Selma, Alabama – a small town right in the middle of Alabama. My mom died when I was a baby, so I don’t really remember her – my grandma and father raised me and my sister. My father was a cab driver in Selma, he eventually owned the car service that he worked for, but, I always remember my father driving cabs all my life.
Most African American’s worked for the [white] people – but my dad did not so he didn’t have the restraints that most African American men and women had in Selma to participate in the civil rights demonstrations. If you worked for a white man and they saw you demonstrating or trying to register to vote, they would come up to you and say “Are you involved in this stuff?” Or they’d see you in a mass meeting and fire you on the spot. When you have a family to feed it was very, very hard to choose between freedom and your livelihood – my daddy didn’t have those problems.
I grew up during what we called “segregation,” when blacks of America didn’t have a lot of rights. In the south you just couldn’t do a lot of things, like we couldn’t go to lunch counters, we couldn’t try on shoes, and we couldn’t try on clothes. We couldn’t go in a lot of restaurants – we just couldn’t do a lot of things. We had separate facilities for almost everything; even if you went to a white doctor, you had a colored waiting room and your waiting room didn’t look nearly as nice as the white waiting room. I remember being envious of the white children that I could see through the windows of the restaurant, they were having such a good time, it seemed like the thing to do – I wanted to do that, but couldn’t.
I remember this time when Grandmother and I went to get shoes. Before we left home, Grandmother measured my foot with a string so we’d know my shoe size, we didn’t normally go to town for something like this, so I was excited. When we got to the store, I saw a pair of shoes on the floor, I ran in and I put my foot in the shoe – they were so pretty! Grandmother snatched me and she was shaking me and she started yelling. In front of all those people in that store, I was so embarrassed! Meanwhile, the sales clerk picked up the shoes and brought them over to Grandmother and said “Here.” Grandmother pulled the string out and said, “If you get her size I’ll gladly buy them.” “You don’t understand,” the sales clerk said, “you have to buy these shoes because that little nigger put her foot in it.”
I didn’t have any shoes that Easter because those were too big – we had to buy them and didn’t have money left to buy shoes that fit. I remember crying and crying and crying – that was one of the very first times I felt like something was not just right with me because I was colored; I didn’t know why.
The Origins of a Movement
My grandmother was a member of an organization called The Dallas County Voters League; it was formed in the 1930’s and, by Sam and Amelia Boynton, to try to register African Americans in our county (Dallas County) to vote. I went to meetings with Grandmother, I would sit at her feet while they strategized; the children internalized what they were talking about, you can’t just block it out; it’s like learning the song off the radio, you never see the lyrics but you know every word of the song.
The Dallas County Voters League worked for 30 years before it got any media attention. For those of you who try to make change, you know media is one of the main ingredients to any change, without it no one knows your struggle – there’s no one to be outraged. For example, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Selma in 1965, the media came; he brought money, motivation and the media – key ingredients. But prior to that, no one knew, but men and women were marching in Selma since the 1930s. They were going to jail since the 1930s in Selma. The folks here even wrote the letter that invited Dr. King to Selma; he didn’t show up by accident, he was invited here.
Dallas County and the Road to Bloody Sunday
Before Dr. King came, he organized a mass voter registration effort, not just in Dallas Country, but across the black belt counties in Alabama. One of the men in charge of organizing was Reverend Orange; he began to organize students because we were the ones who realized that we needed to change, that something needed to give – we wanted more out of whatever we were put on earth for.
Reverend James Orange organized about 600 students to march on the courthouse; we were all put in jail. Reverend Orange told me that a trooper came in with a rope, and on the end of that rope was a noose. That tropper threw that noose over the top of the cell, it hung in his face all day long. Can you imagine that? Sitting there all day long looking at this noose, knowing that these people are going to kill you with that same rope and there’s nothing you can do. Can you imagine?
The jailers released us kids, when you do things like hang a noose in front of a man, you don’t want witnesses. The children went to the church where a mass meeting was happening, two blocks from the jail, and burst into the mass meeting and said, “You all have to do something or they’re going to kill Reverend Orange! They’re going to kill him now if you don’t – we have to do something now!”
The people in the church decided they would go down to the jail, walk around it all night long in hopes that their presence would save Reverend Oranges’ life. But when they left the church, they were attacked and brutally beaten. Jimmy Lee Jackson had attended this mass meeting and when he emerged from the church, he saw officers beating his 82 year old grandfather. Jimmy ran over and begged and pleaded with the white officers not to beat his grandfather. His mother was also there, she ran out from the café that was across the street and as she approached the officer, he raised his billy club to hit her – Jimmy grabbed the billy club to protect her – the officer shot him. Jimmy died eight days later.
Something needed to be done. It was decided that we would walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to take Jimmy’s body to the state capital; lay it on the steps of the capital and say that we’ve had enough. Our children are dying. Too many people are dying.
Bloody Sunday: March 7, 1965
On March 7th a large group of us left Brown Chapel and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side were policemen; they said there would be no march. Normal procedure for us would have been to kneel and pray – I mean we couldn’t go any further, and then we’d get up and go back to the church. I was far back in the crowd, so we waited for the front to go down, kneeling to pray, and suddenly we heard gunshots and screams. Before we could turn around, the officers had boxed us in; the policemen came from the side and the back and the front, there was nowhere for us to go. They were just beating people.
It’s the screams I remember the most – people just screaming and screaming and screaming. The police were shooting tear gas canisters in the crowd. You couldn’t see, you couldn’t breathe, all you could do is scream – they were just beating people. If you could outrun the men on foot, you couldn’t outrun the ones on horseback. The horses were scared too, they were kicking and rearing up. There was no place for us to go; people were being trampled, being run down by the horses. Blood was everywhere on the bridge and people were laying as if they were dead and we couldn’t even stop to see if they were alright, even if you recognized who it was. It was horrible and it seemed to last an eternity.
The last thing I remember seeing on the bridge that day is this lady and this horse. I don’t know if the horse ran over her, or if the officer on the horse hit her with the billy club, but I remember the sound of her head hitting that pavement – I’ll never forget it. It was too much for me. Phew – I fainted.
When I awakened, I was on the city side of the bridge in the back of a car and my sister Lynda was with me, she was crying. My head was in her lap, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that it wasn’t tears that was wetting up my face, it was blood. My sister – my fourteen year old sister – had been beaten on that bridge and had a wound on her head that required eighteen stitches.
Dr. King was not in Selma on Bloody Sunday, and I’ll tell you that’s why we had that march on that Sunday because he was not there; Dr. King would not have approved. On March 9th, when Dr. King came back, he organized us again. We marched again. Through it all, we marched again. I held tight to my sister and father’s hand this time and I went across the bridge.
After the March, I felt that my dad was more empowered now to protect me. Prior to the march, when there were encounters with white people, my parents were… just would back down, they would, “Yes, sir.” You know? And suddenly all of that went away. Suddenly even though I knew my dad was a man, he was an even bigger man to me – because now, in those encounters, he demanded respect; I never saw that before.
There’s this lady in Selma named Rose Sanders. Rose Sanders is different. One day Rose said, “Anne,” (that’s my nickname) “Anne, we should open a museum.” I said, “She’s lost her mind.” “Rose, we don’t know anything about museums.” But Rose is the type of person, she throws the idea out and it becomes yours; I don’t know how she does that!
We realized that our children only knew about a few select people from the Civil Rights Movement; Dr. King and maybe one or two others. Dr. King may have been in Selma only seven times out of this whole period, and when you see a picture of him leading The March it looks like he was here every day, telling you to go here… but ordinary people did this. Everyday foot soldiers did this, made this change. Not to take away from anything that Dr. King brought, because he brought what he was supposed to bring, but he was not there everyday, the people did it. We want our children to know that the strength came from ordinary people just like you.
You can’t tell this history unless you let people know that other people died for you to have the rights that you have. And that goes for every ethnic group in these United States. Wherever there are rights, somebody died for it – voting rights was no exception. And women play big parts in all movements, yet those men who write our history (that’s not fair to guys is it, but it’s true) …who write our history, deemed to leave us out – we have a woman’s room in the museum to tell our story.
Drop by Drop
My grandmother has this saying, “mighty rivers are filled drop by drop.”
Where is your drop? Where is your drop? You know I found my drop: my drop is making sure you know where we’ve been in life, that part of our history never ever needs to be repeated on any group because power is a funny thing. If the power shifts one way or the other, it could very well be you next time – and it’s not pleasant. It’s not pleasant. It hurts. It’s nasty and it’s evil and we don’t want that to ever happen to anybody else. So you’re going to have to do your drop, you’ve just got to do it. You’re not complete until you do it – period.
Where’s Your Drop?
An incredible ‘thank you’ to the brilliant and kind Tyina Steptoe – my partner in Selma and beyond – for providing the transcripts of her interview with Ms. Bland, taped December 2005 in Madison, Wisconsin for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute.
Read about how Selma shaped Tyina when you visit her blog “Lone Star in Selma.”
Do not miss the opportunity to visit Ms. Bland and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma – it will change you.
Photos are mine, snapshots from 2002.
- Stephanie Goetsch, February 2011