As a young girl growing up in Selma, Ala., Joanne Bland often watched wistfully as white children sat at the counter at the local drugstore enjoying ice cream.
Bland was forbidden from taking part in that simple, joyful activity simply because she was black and was living in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. She often heard her grandmother and other black women discuss the often life-threatening indignities blacks faced, and how they needed to mobilize to obtain their freedom.
Blacks already had their freedom, the young Bland thought. President Abraham Lincoln had granted that a century earlier. What kind of freedom were those older women talking about anyway?
Then Bland’s grandmother told her that the kind of freedom she wanted would allow Bland to take part in various activities she couldn’t, including eating at the ice cream counter.
“I was looking at those white kids eating their ice cream, wishing it was me,” Bland, 66, told DeLong Middle School students Wednesday during a speech about civil rights and the importance of addressing injustice. “My grandma bent down and said ‘When we get our freedom, you can sit there too.’ When I heard that, I was in. Now I was ready to fight for freedom.”
Bland did fight for freedom. The famous civil rights leader first spent time in jail for protesting blacks not being allowed to vote when she was 8. By the time she was 11, she had been jailed 13 times.
Undeterred, she kept protesting, kept marching, kept speaking out. Her indignation at not being able to sit at the ice cream counter turned into a lifetime of civil rights activism in which Bland said she has attempted to “stamp out injustice wherever I encounter it.” In recent years she has taken part in Black Lives Matter marches to protest injustices to those of her race.
“We should fight injustice wherever we find it,” she told students. “I want you to figure out how you can make this world better ... I truly believe you are the ones who can change our world.”
During her nearly half-hour speech in honor of Black History Month sponsored by UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program, Bland told students about the perils of growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s as a black girl. She described the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, how police brutally attacked marchers, how she ran past bloodied bodies lying on the ground.
“I wanted to stop and help, but you couldn’t,” she said, “or you’d be bloody too.”
Bland was stunned by the violence of the attackers, she said, and felt pangs of fear ripple through her body.
“After all these years, you know what I remember most?” she asked students. “The screams.”
Bland’s sister was injured in the melee, her head cut with wounds that required 26 stitches. Despite those injuries and the terror of the Selma attack, Bland and her sisters were among about 2,500 who showed up again at the Edmund Pettus Bridge two days later, on March 9, 1965, and held a prayer service there as police watched.
“After what had happened two days earlier, I wanted to turn around and run away,” Bland said. “But my sisters held my hand and kept me there.”
A week later a court order preventing the march to Montgomery, Ala., was lifted. The events of Selma proved to be a turning point in the civil rights movement and on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was adopted.
In subsequent years Bland remained involved in the civil rights movement in different ways. She is the co-founder and former director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. These days she is a public speaker who presents about civil rights and activism. She is the owner of Journeys For The Soul, a touring agency that specializes in civil rights tours with a focus on Selma.
DeLong eighth-grader McKenna McDew introduced Bland. She learned that her uncle, activist Charles McDew, and Bland knew each and worked on civil rights issues together.
“People look at me different because I’m black,” McDew said. “I learned today to always fight for what you believe in, and I am going to keep fighting.”
Civil rights have improved significantly since she was a child, Bland said. But much work remains, she said, including addressing attempts in many states, such as Wisconsin, to suppress voter turnout.
“We’ve come a long way since those days,” she said of the segregated South. “But we’re not nearly where we need to be.”
Because of that, Bland said she plans to keep fighting injustice.
“I keep doing that because that’s what we are supposed to do,” she said. “Everyday life is supposed to include activism.”