Joanne Bland was 11 years old when she marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Heading from Selma toward Montgomery, the activists were committed to securing voting rights for all Americans, but on March 7, 1965, they were violently attacked by law enforcement officers. It became known as Bloody Sunday.
I interviewed Joanne at her home in Selma in August 2015, just 12 days after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and the city was gripped by protests. She spoke of the pain of watching televised scenes from Ferguson that reminded her of scenes she witnessed in Selma 50 years ago.
“My niche in life is teaching the lessons of the past to facilitate a better future.”
As a nation we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. As we elders get weary, the children are going to have to take us where we need to go.
People don’t talk honestly about race. Just don’t talk about it, and we’ll all get along. And the moment I question something that I think is racist, you put up a wall and we can’t talk because you feel like I’m accusing you.
Here in Selma, in 2000 we elected our first African American mayor in a town that’s always been at least 65 percent black. That same year, a statue of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan was erected on the grounds of one of our museums. It really upset me. It said, “You may have a Negro mayor, but we’re still here.”
Protests shut Selma down. And this little old [white] lady told me, “Y’all better let us have something.”
Do you really feel like we’re taking something away from you? Because to me, her fear was that if we were empowered, we would treat them the same way they had treated us.
When you continually get hurt by people who don’t look like you, you are suspicious of them. Here you come smiling, but you are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You’re white and eventually you’re going to show your true colors—that you don’t like me. Period.
I tried to teach my child and my grandchildren that it’s not like that. We try to take people at face value. But it’s hard for me to explain how you expect racism when you’re black. You expect discrimination when you’re black. And we don’t question it as often as we should.
If I was a child, we could have a fist fight this morning and be playing by noon. You know, we’re still buddy-buddy. But adults hold onto craziness. We hold onto stupidity. You have a wall that you throw up. I have a wall that I throw up. That wasn’t there when we were kids. We shared what children share: a sense of peace and freedom, to play, to love, to just be happy.
What happens to us when we grow up is life. And sometimes it makes us better, but more often than not, it makes us worse.
One day we’ll be all right. I’m just tired of waiting for one day. I want it to be now. I want it to be in my lifetime. When we were growing up in the 1960s, I thought by now we’d have that Beloved Community and everything would be peaceful. It has not happened.
Scenes from Selma and Montgomery
Joanne Bland full audio interview
- What prevents us from being able to draw parallels between historical events?
- What do we lose when we don’t learn the whole story? (For example, as Ms. Bland pointed out, the struggle in Selma was decades in the making)
- Was there a cause you were passionate about as a youth?
- Is there a justice issue that you are passionate about now? Why did you get interested in this?
- What is the benefit in involving youth in the fight for justice?
- What is the importance of having a sense of ownership in one’s community?
- Describe a time when you connected with someone across lines of difference.
- What things get in the way of us having honest conversations with each other? How can we work past them?
- Something like — Is it surprising to you that Joanne Bland is still weary/waiting? Why?
- What things need to change before Joanne’s vision is realized? How do we get there?
- How does the media affect the way we respond to injustice? Or, what is the media’s responsibility in educating the public about injustice? (Or both?)
- How do we get back to the innocence of childhood in our interactions with one another?