She made civil rights history in Selma. Now, she guides visitors through its past
Updated December 22, 2022 at 7:00 AM ET
JoAnne Bland wants to welcome you to Selma, Ala. The 69-year-old was born in this small city, and except for time away for college and the Army, her hometown has defined her work, purpose and, possibly, her very soul. It's a calling, one she wants to share with all Americans.
When you meet JoAnne Bland, you're told to expect a "bossy grandmother who is totally awesome." That's how Deborah Douglas, the author of a travel guide to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, describes Bland anyway.
Bland has been giving tours of Selma for 33 years. She's direct and gets right to the point when explaining how things work on her tour.
"I talk, you listen," she says with a laugh. And that laugh is a cue to her storytelling style, a mix of humor and no "sugarcoating." Underneath her jacket, she wears a T-shirt with a one-word message: "Kindness."
Her tours begin near the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general who went on to become a Ku Klux Klan leader and a U.S. senator. It's on this bridge where the path of American history shifted — so much so, it prompted President Lyndon Johnson to appear before a televised, joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, and urge passage of the Voting Rights Act.
"At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala.," Johnson said.
A foot soldier for civil rights at 11 years old
Bland was just 11 years old on March 7, 1965, the day now known as "Bloody Sunday." She had come with her older sister Linda to join a march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery. Led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they had gathered to march for voting rights. Out of about 15,000 Black Selma residents, only about 300 had registered to vote.
The marchers were met by armed state troopers and local police, some on horseback, and viciously beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Film captured that day brought the brutality used to suppress the rights of Black Americans into homes across the U.S.
The marchers became known as "foot soldiers," and living that history is what drives Bland to keep sharing it, trying to safeguard the lessons from that time and ensure they get passed to future generations.
"I don't have time to waste. This is urgent that we start to capture our own histories ... I'm one of the youngest people who participated. One of, not the youngest. But we're leaving here every day. And when we leave, those stories are gone. Who will tell the story? And who will tell the children that they have the same strength if we don't?"
A peppermint from Martin Luther King Jr.
Bland calls her tours "Journeys for the Soul," and they include a stop in a neighborhood of small brick buildings separated by patches of lawn. It's where Bland grew up, raised by her dad and grandmother in the George Washington Carver Homes. During the push for civil rights, this public housing became a haven for local and out-of-town activists.
"My grandmother and most of the mothers in the community would say when it would start to get dark in the evening to go find a white person, because we would always find them sitting on those steps, the steps of Brown Chapel with a backpack on their back leaning against the wall, perfectly happy to sleep there because they couldn't stay in hotels. It was dangerous for them because they were outside agitators."
Brown Chapel AME Church is just next door. Some of the mightiest figures in the civil rights movement convened here, including Martin Luther King Jr. Bland says she doesn't remember his voice being like we think of it today, but what she does recall makes clear just how young she was when she met him.
"The one thing I remember, he was always eager to talk to us young people," she says. "And when the elders would try to keep us away, he said, 'No, let them come. Let them come.' And he would ask you about your day and you wanted to tell him every detail ... And he always had a peppermint, a Starlight peppermint. And he would always give you that peppermint. And to this day, I love peppermints."
A park for the foot soldiers
Outside the church, Bland marches to a small playground surrounded by a chain-link fence and some old, chipped pavement that sits in the shadow of Brown Chapel.
"You're standing on the last piece of the original cement where we gathered on what is now known as Bloody Sunday. I followed John Lewis and Hosea Williams up to that bridge to be beaten by law enforcement officers. You're standing on sacred ground," she says.
Bland is trying to save this patch of concrete. She wants to incorporate it into a park celebrating civil rights history, an attraction that would bring tourists deeper into the city, so they don't just stop at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to snap a photo. She hopes it would lift up this community, majority Black and many struggling with poverty.
It would also be a place, she says, where future generations could "walk in the footsteps of history-makers." She already has a name: Foot Soldier's Park.
"We were terrified"
The next stop on Bland's tour is just a few blocks down what's now Martin Luther King Street. It's First Baptist Church, which Bland remembers as the headquarters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, roughly a mile from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It's here where Bland recalls how law enforcement chased her and marchers back to First Baptist Church on Bloody Sunday.
"My sister and I ... ran back here," Bland says. "And we were terrified and we kept running and we ran up those steps and went inside the church thinking we were safe. We were not. They came into the church and started beating people all over again. I saw them pick up a young man about 16 years old and just hoist him above their heads and throw him into the baptismal pool. What happened at that bridge didn't stop at that bridge. It happened out here all night long."
Bland doesn't stop teaching during her tour, pointing out the dividing line between Black Selma and white Selma, the house where Dr. King stayed when he was in town and the antebellum house of a landowner that dates back to the 1850s.
"I've come a long, long way with this civil rights history because it's been like therapy. Talking about it — it was like a cleansing. But I'm not nearly in that same place with this slavery history. Our history had to be the worst of all mankind. Everything was taken. Nothing was given."
A painful past and present still in Selma
The legacy of slavery and the Civil War era as a whole remains very much present in Selma. Inside the city's Live Oak Cemetery, the tall oak trees tower above graves and are draped in Spanish moss.
"This cemetery. I have a love/hate relationship with it," says Bland. "The trees are magnificent." She chuckles and says that in the spring, when the azaleas are in bloom, it's like "God just threw up pink."
The cemetery predates the Civil War and includes a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. You might think the monument is old, like the cemetery, but it was put up after Selma elected its first Black mayor in 2000.
"It says to me, you may have a Negro mayor, but I'm still here," Bland says. "We gotta find a way to change hearts. And the people who think like that are still here. And they're still fighting this war."
Bland points out the Confederate flags, all around the cemetery, and said she always brings her school groups to Live Oak.
"I use this as a teaching tool to let young people know it wasn't that long ago — that this is still here."
Bland knows that given the growing debate around education and race — namely how critical race theory has galvanized some on the political right — that there are those who might feel that teaching this history risks making white children feel bad about themselves. But that's not what she's setting out to do, she says.
"Well, one, you can't let a child leave thinking you're blaming them. No, you're not even blaming their parents," she explains. "Hopefully, I'm inspiring that white child with the stories of the past to join with the children of color to make sure this never, ever happens to another people."
Bland ends her tour back near the bridge where her life — and America, really — changed back in 1965. The bridge is still named after that civil war general and KKK leader, but she wouldn't change it.
"When you change names, you change history. I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, all those bad things he did."
She then adds: "Every time you walk across that bridge, I bet [he's] rolling in his grave, that's what grandma would say."
Bland says she thinks what she and the legions of civil rights foot soldiers accomplished on Bloody Sunday was to "change the whole meaning of this bridge."
"Selma gave so much, this history is so rich that it's sort of like Mecca, coming to Mecca," she says. "I had so many people tell me they didn't realize the bridge was that small. That's because the history is so huge, so huge."
On March 25, 1965, on their third try, marchers joined by Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Montgomery. JoAnne Bland was among them. The Voting Rights Act passed that August.
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