“Selma gives so much to this nation, but nobody gives anything back to Selma.”
– Joanne Bland, March 2016
We left Alabama’s capital and have traveled to Selma, the city best known for the 1960s Voting Rights Movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches. We spent our day with an energetic and charismatic woman and leading activist for racial equality in the south, Ms. Joanne Bland.
A Selma native and active NAACP member, Bland serves as the co-founder and former director of the National Voting Rights Museum. The youngest person to be arrested and jailed during any civil rights demonstration, she provided a first hand narrative of “Bloody Sunday” where she witnessed her sister and other activists being beaten by Alabama State troopers.
Leading us on a historic bus tour, Bland ensured we became aware of the lesser known history of the Queen City of the Black Belt. We visited Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the meeting headquarters and starting point of the Montgomery march. The washed red bricks, seemingly in original condition, told the story of struggle and motivation to create positive change. Walking to the back of the church, the group stood on a concrete slab that had been there during the time of Dr. Martin Luther King. I, a twenty year old Black woman, was standing on the same concrete where thousands gathered to march in pursuit of voting rights and equality. Surreal was and is an understatement.
After an inspiring visit to a local area daycare and a less than comfortable amount of time in a cemetery clad in confederate flags, we ventured to what I’d been waiting for — the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Named after former confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member, the bridge carries cars and pedestrians over the Alabama River and is responsible for many horrifying images of the 1960s. On March 7, 1965 policemen attacked peaceful protestors leaving seventeen hospitalized, fifty treated for injury, and over four hundred emotional wounds.
With this horrific story in mind, I just knew I would feel something as I crossed the historic bridge. Walking two by two on the sidewalk, I attempted to picture what it would’ve been like to link arms with activists John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and others. As I attempted to place myself in a different position, I waited to feel inspired or content with having walked where King, Julian Bond, Amelia Boynton, and even President Obama, stepped foot.
Fortunately, there was a pivotal moment that changed my yearn for emotion. As I walked under the bridge’s entrance, a faint sound of a police siren traveled through the air and into my ears. Due to the design of the bridge, I was unable to see the cause of the noise until reaching the center.
Why was there a police presence?
Were we okay?
We had a right to be here, why were his sirens so loud?
Are we making eye contact?
Are we really safe?
Immediately transformed in time, I imagined the protestors of 1965 who only heard yelling and screaming before the canisters of tear gas filled the city and caused friction.
Accompanied by slight fear and confusion, I finally began to see a blue police vehicle drive slowly down the middle lane. I wasn’t able to see the police car until it was directly in front of me, causing me to complete a few moments of deep thinking. This must’ve been what it was like for the brave men and women in the back of the crowd. They literally could not see what was going on ahead of them. Though they could hear sounds of possible violence and fear, they walked into blatant hatred and militant hands of oppressors and, for just one moment, I was in their shoes.
Wrapping up an education-filled day in Selma, Joanne Bland left a great parting message. She urged everyone not only to register to vote, but to learn about the larger process of voting. “If voting wasn’t so valuable, why did they try to keep it away from us?” she regarded as she continued her conclusion, “don’t let all of our good work go to waste.”