Participant in Selma Marches Will Speak in East Lansing This Tuesday
Photo credit: Jerry Siegel.
This year marks the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Selma to Montgomery marches that drew attention to the suppression of African Americans’ voting rights. On Tuesday, East Lansing residents will have the opportunity to learn about the Selma to Montgomery marches from a unique perspective: that of the one of the youngest recorded participants, Joanne Bland.
In honor of Black History Month, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan is hosting “An Evening with Joanne Bland” in partnership with MSUFCU and the East Lansing Human Relations Commission on February 11 at 6 p.m. at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center.
Bland was arrested 13 times before she was eleven-years-old, due to her participation in civil rights actions. But she did not realize that her story was unique until adulthood. She thought everyone participated in the movement with their families.
Her grandmother lived in Detroit but eventually returned to Selma, where Bland was born and raised. After living in Detroit, Bland’s grandmother could not understand why African Americans in Selma did not have the same rights and protections as those in the North.
Bland accompanied her grandmother to civil rights meetings, and her older sisters, who babysat her, were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which played a crucial role in monumental events of the Civil Rights Movement: Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and the March on Washington, to name a few.
On Tuesday, Bland will discuss her participation in the Selma Marches, recounting how she passed the police who then assaulted the participants of the peaceful protest. Bland recalls that, when she heard the police launching tear gas canisters into the crowd, she thought the noise was from gunshots.
It was a fear grounded in reality. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, started by Dr. King in 1957 to coordinate among existing groups, organized the Selma Marches in response to the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. While participating in a peaceful voting rights march in Alabama, state trooper James Bonard Fowler brutally beat and shot Jackson.
Elaine Hardy, who works for the City of East Lansing and is Chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan, told ELi she is looking forward to the community hearing Bland’s story.
Hardy points out that African Americans born before 1965 were born without guaranteed access to their constitutional rights. To Hardy, Bland’s story demonstrates that you are never too young or too old to shape history.
After the Civil War, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which ended slavery, provided freedpersons with equal protection under the law, and guaranteed African Americans the right to vote, respectively. However, continued discrimination and segregation under Jim Crow laws meant many African Americans were denied access to these rights for another 100 years.
Locally, the City of East Lansing formally apologized in February 2018 for its history of racist housing discrimination after East Lansing High School student Alex Hosey sparked a local discussion with his essay, “Why I Sit.” Those events led to a forum discussion in April 2018 about the persistence of racism in East Lansing, a forum that was also held at the Hannah Community Center.
Bland told ELi in an interview on Saturday that she is driven to make sure that younger generations are well-informed about the past. She views it as essential to prevent the rollback of any group’s rights today. Bland emphasizes that having rights enshrined in law does not make them a guarantee. Often, people must fight to protect these rights.
Bland was a founding member of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute but left her work at the museum to found Journeys for the Soul, her own tour company through which she brings thousands of visitors to Selma annually to see the sites and hear her story.
Her current work with Journeys for the Soul is the part of her legacy which makes her most proud. While working at the museum, she sometimes was able to escape her administrative duties to tell visitors a bit of her life story.
These experiences along with letters she received from visitors made her realize that sharing her story was her calling. When I spoke to Bland on Saturday evening, she had just guided two tour buses – one from Washington, the other from New Jersey.
“I truly believe that everyone is a piece of the puzzle. I am doing my piece of the puzzle for social change,” she explained. Bland often uses the puzzle analogy to explain her philosophy. We all have a role to play in social change, but the picture is incomplete when our unique piece is missing.
The setting of Bland’s story is 1965 Selma, but the lessons that she draws from her story transcend time and place. Bland recounted how the old problems of racism and discrimination manifest under new labels such as racial profiling and police brutality. She wants people to know that organizing and making voices heard is just as important today as it was to her 55 years ago.
“We don’t realize the power we have in uniting,” she said. “Poor people everywhere are denied rights, but we don’t join together. Imagine our society if we did? We can’t be silent. We got to say something, and then do something. Keep screaming. Someone will hear you.”
Those interested in hearing more about Joanne Bland’s story can pick up tickets at the Hannah Community Center prior to Tuesday’s event. Tickets are free, but a $10 donation to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan is encouraged.
Note: This article originally indicated Bland was the youngest recorded participant in the Selma marches. She was one of the youngest, and the article and headline have been corrected accordingly.
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