Activist Joanne Bland shares her experience fighting for voting rights in Selma and what led her to join the movement.

On Wednesday, Columbia’s own Sankofa Tzedek, a program centered around the interconnection between Black and Jewish communities, hosted Selma activist, Joanne Bland. The event began with an introduction by Sankofa Tzedek followed by a brief overview of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Joanne Bland then took the figurative stage and started telling her story.

She began by setting up an image of Selma, Alabama and her house in the projects. She lived with her siblings and father and grandmother. Her grandmother had come down from the North after Bland’s mother had passed away, waiting for a blood transfusion of “black blood” in a white hospital. It was her grandmother who, after experiencing numerous freedoms in the North, was inspired to make change in Selma. She wanted freedom. Joanne Bland described to us her confusion with this idea — “didn’t Lincoln already free us?” There was this ice cream bar in Selma that Bland used to pass by. There she saw white children sitting and spinning and sipping ice cream shakes. Her grandmother told her that “freedom” meant being able to sit at that counter and, with that, Bland understood. 

Immediately, Bland brings up an interesting point about what it means to have “freedom.” The United States being a free country should imply that we all have freedoms—the first amendment even grants us five. But Bland suggests the word can take on multiple meanings for different people and shifts given context. Freedom is also easier to comprehend and even miss when we see the possibility of what it means to have it. 

 Bland certainly knows what it means to have freedoms taken away. By the age of 11, she had been jailed 13 times for various means of protest. But protest was important. She went to jail, fighting for an increase in Black voting rights. And voting rights were the key to freedom. Voting, she knew, had the power to give everyone an equal voice and provide representation. This principle is certainly still relevant today, given the uptick in voter suppression. For example, unauthorized ballot boxes were placed around California by its GOP party, mail-in-ballots are being labeled as “fraudulent”, and in-person voting lines have been unjustifiably long. As I was listening to the powerful words of Joanne Bland, I couldn’t help but draw many parallels to the present life. Bland even commented on this lack of progress; during the Q&A portion, a student asked “Has racial equity progressed enough since the 1960s?” But Bland simply responded, “No. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be out in the streets.”

Bland knows exactly what it means to be out on the streets. Even though she was young at the time, she recounted with immense accuracy, the first attempt at a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as part of the Selma to Mongomery marches. Led by John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams, the march began peacefully but came to a halt when protestors were greeted by a wall of police. Bland told us that usually when encountering a barricade of police (implying this happened a lot), the protestors would all go down on their knees while the reverend said a prayer and then return home. She had waited for this to happen but instead of experiencing the power of the divine, she was greeted with the traumatizing sounds of gunshots. The police began beating people no matter their age, or race, or gender. With a pained look on her face, she mentioned being unable to help any of the wounded — “If you stopped to help, you’d be beaten too,” she explained. Police even used tear gas canisters and horses to trample those on the bridge. Even to this day, Bland remembers the intense crack of a woman’s skull hitting the ground as she was knocked unconscious. 

These images are familiar. They are repetitive. Images of protestors being tear-gassed or an old man pushed down by police are in our current new cycles. Much of Joanne’s story described what happened to her in the past yet still remains increasingly relevant. There is a lot to learn from her. One thing she mentioned that stayed with me even after the event was her belief that the Edmund Pettus Bridge not be renamed after John Lewis. She acknowledged, of course, that John Lewis should receive some other sort of recognition. But her ideology was based on the fact that Selma is synonymous with the struggle for voting rights and the name of the bridge, regardless of who Edmund Pettus was, is prominent in that struggle. What had happened on that bridge changed the meaning. She told us that we all walk around with rights that she (along with others) secured on that bridge. When we tear down and rebuild, new history begins and old history is forgotten. This history–the history that she fought for–is far too important to be forgotten. 

Edmund Pettus Bridge via Flikr