By the time she was 11, Selma resident Joanne Bland had been arrested 13 times for resisting segregation. Bland grew up in a housing project right next to Brown Chapel A.M.E., the launching point for Bloody Sunday, when police unleashed their brutality on civil rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a starting point for a 54 mile march from Selma to Mongtomery, Alabama’s state Capitol.
Joanne Bland says movement organizers tried to teach her nonviolence but she wasn’t having none of it. Sure, she understood the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, but if someone raised a hand to her, they’d get back what they dished out and then some. She was raised in the ‘hood, which had it’s own definitions of justice.
“Taking about my growing up is like therapy,” says Bland, who shared her experiences, peppered with scathing critiques of the white power structure and the kind of humor that’s all about laughing to keep from crying.
“My grandmother had been taking me to meetings of the Dallas County Voters League. They were talking about getting this thing called freedom. My teacher had told me Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves. Carter’s drug store had a lunch counter. Everytime, I walked by I saw white kids sitting there enjoying a soda and I wanted to twirl on one of those stools. One day my grandmother and I were walking in town and she stopped to talk to a friend outside of the drug store. She noticed me staring at the white kids inside Carter’s and said to me, ‘When we get our freedom, you can do that too.’ I became a freedom fighter that day.”
“I started going to SNCC meetings with my older sister. We used to march to the courthouse. We weren’t old enough to register to vote, but we’d kneel on the steps of the courthouse and someone would say a prayer to the creator asking him to lift the hearts of those evil men who were keeping our parents from voting. They’d arrest us all and put us in cells with no less than 40 people. These were cells meant for two. There was no mattress, just a metal frame that would cut into your thigh if you sat on it. There was no privacy. They gave us dried beans for a meal. The first time I was arrested, I was eight years old.”
When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King told the world that Selma would be the battleground for voting rights. Bland says King came to Selma maybe seven times, but “most movements are led by women and children and this was no different. Martin Luther King brought the three M’s: money, motivation and the media” – all necessary to making social change.
King sent Reverend James Orange to Perry County, Alabama to register voters. Police arrested Orange on the usual B.S. charges. When they put him in a jail cell, they threw in a rope and noose, a hint of what was to come. Word got back to Selma about it and a mass meeting was called to figure out what to do. Bland says when they left that meeting, Jimmie Lee Jackson spotted a state trooper beating his 82-year old grandfather. When his mother tried to stop the beating, the trooper lifted his billy club to strike Jackson’s mom. Jimmie Lee raised his hand to block the blow and the trooper shot him in the stomach. Jackson died eight days later.
On Bloody Sunday, Bland says, “When I crossed the street. I was a warrior…I had no idea it would be violent…When we got onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the plan was for John Lewis and Hosea Williams to ask the police for permission to pass. They would get down on their knees and pray. And everyone else would then follow. We were standing, waiting for the front to go down, when I heard the shots and screams. The cops came at us from front and back and they were just beating people. People lay everywhere, bleeding. You couldn’t stop to help them or you’d be beaten too. I’ll never forget the sound of screaming and the tear gas cannisters being fired in the crowd. The poor horses were afraid and people were being trampled, bones were being broken. I do know, as I sit here, 48 years later, I can still hear the sound of [one woman’s] head hitting the pavement. When it was over. I sat down and put my head in my sister’s Linda’s lap. I could feel her tears dripping down on me, but it wasn’t tears, it was blood. My 14-year old sister had been beaten and had to get 26 stitches.”
Media coverage of the carnage of Bloody Sunday was met with outrage the world over. “Planeloads of people” descended on Selma to join the march to Montgomery. This, after Judge Frank Johnson issued a permit allowing the march to take place and ordering the police to provide protection. About 8000 people ambled along Route 80. They slept on the ground. They braved the rain. They wore down their shoes. They would not be deterred.
Joanne Bland boarded our bus to give us a tour of her hometown. Selma still has many of its original buildings where crops and slaves were bought and sold. And many of the streets are still named for Confederate leaders, although activists have been working to change that.
As we drove past a car lot called “Bama Motors,” she said to us, “See that man, standing there, smoking a cigarette? His name is O’Neal Hoggle. He killed a white minister named James Reeb.”
After Bloody Sunday, three Unitarian Universalist ministers answered Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma to join the march. After dinner at a local restaurant, the three men walked down the street where they were attacked by a group of angry white men. Hoggle swung a bat full force against Reeb’s head. Hoggle and his gang were tried by a jury of white peers and found not guilty.
Reeb, by the way, was once the assistant minister at All Soul’s Church in Washington, D.C. He was only 38 when he was murdered.
That Joanne Bland has to share Selma with O’Neal Hoggle is an obscenity beyond words.
Bland’s tour continued. We drove down First Avenue, the line dividing white and black communities. “If you were black and on the white side, you were there to cook, clean, fix or as the police would say you were up to no good.”
Passing the public library, Bland recalled that, “Wednesday was Negro Day at the library.” Blacks weren’t permitted to use this public facility on any other day. She pointed out the movie theater where blacks had to sit segregated in the balcony. “We threw all kinds of stuff down on the whites below and everytime we left the movies, we had to leave running.”
The killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Bloody Sunday and Reverend James Reeb together marked a tipping point that led Lyndon Johnson to push for passage of the Voting Right Act. After the historical bill was signed into law in August of 1965, Selma went from having 250 registered black voters to 9000 almost immediately.
“Movements are like jigsaw puzzles. Everyone has a piece,” says Joanne Bland. You gotta think about your part and how big your piece is going to be.”
Joanne Bland hands me her card. Her business is called “Journeys for the Soul.” Joanne Bland, Journey Specialist.
As we ended our time in Selma, Bland walks us over to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and tells us it’s our turn to cross it. And we do, feeling both the pain of history and the joy of freedom in every step.