On Friday, January 13, Sacred Heart senior, Elizabeth Bachmann, a News 12 reporter and I had the unique opportunity to interview civil rights activist, Ms. Joanne Bland, prior to her whole-school presentation. Joanne Bland grew up in Selma, Alabama during the 1960s. As a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), Ms. Bland marched on Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Tuesday to advocate for equal voting rights for all. She has remained active in the civil rights movement to this day.
During my interview, I asked Ms. Bland about her childhood and her personal experience with segregation and discrimination. She recounted that, “we couldn’t go to stores and try on clothes,” and “we even had what we called ‘colored days’ at our public library. People who looked like me could only go to the movies on ‘colored days’ when whites wouldn’t be there. It is just so silly to me now, when I look back at it.” Ms. Bland became a freedom fighter the day she came upon a whites-only lunch counter when, “peeping in the window… I was wishing it was me sitting there.” Her grandmother told her, “when we get our freedom, you can do that too.” From that point on, Ms. Bland would be jailed many times for her activism which, according to her, “made me who I am today.”
Ms. Bland also shared some touching and humorous memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom she remembered as always being open to visits from children and someone who “always had peppermints in his pocket,” which is why she still loves peppermints today. Sadly she recalls Dr. King’s assassination as feeling “like I had lost, not a friend, but a relative, a close relative.”
In contrast, she remembers the election of President Barack Obama as “a great day” because she never thought there would be an African-American president. I asked Ms. Bland for her reaction to President Obama’s recent observation that “race relations are better than they were ten or twenty years ago, but we are not where we need to be and all of us have more work to do.” She said, “Young people always want us to give them a road map. Don’t you know that if we knew the way to do it, we adults wouldn’t allow kids to do it… You are on a good road because you are learning where we’ve been as a nation. And when you know where we’ve been you can skip those mistakes, right? You take the good and make it better.”
When asked how faith supported her and shaped her life, Ms. Bland responded by saying, “Oh, it’s the whole thing. If you don’t believe, where’s the comfort? And we’ve used religion as a comforter ever since we were brought here…we needed a comforter to help us through those really hard times…So, faith plays a big part, it’s about 100% of my being.”
Finally, Ms. Bland shared why she travels the country talking about her experiences. “Everybody can’t come to me. When they can’t come, I come to them. I think it’s important that we expose this history to as many as possible. Because this was not a good history, it was a bad history, it was a bad time in these United States…I think everyone, in particular our young people, should know where we’ve been as a nation, so we will never, ever go back to that.” She was clearly proud that “a little girl from the projects in Alabama” would receive thousands of letters each year thanking her for her inspiration.
I found speaking with a first-hand witness and participant in civil rights history fascinating and learned much from her about the evolution of the movement in this country. Ms. Bland clearly remains enthusiastic about being a modern freedom fighter and sharing her experiences with communities such as Sacred Heart.
Photos: Rachel Zurheide