By only looking at the civil rights movement through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr., we would see a cursory story of Jim Crow segregation, and the struggle for voting rights. But if we follow the story of a child, who was a foot soldier in the movement, we would reveal a more visceral story.
For example, Selma native Joanne Bland began her journey as a civil rights activists at age 11 when she longed to sit at a whites-only lunch counter.
"I think because of my age I had to have something that connected," Bland said. "And they kept talking about getting freedom because I already knew that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, we had our freedom. I couldn’t associate that with what they were doing. But there was a drug store called Cotta’s Drugstore, and Cotta’s had a lunch counter at that time, and I wanted to sit at the lunch counter, but my grandmother said colored children, that’s what we were called then, can’t sit at the counter. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to sit at that counter. And one day we were there, through peeping at the window watching those white kids wishing it was me, my grandmother noticed and she leaned over my shoulder and she pointed to the counter and she said, “When we get our freedom, you can do that, too.' I became a freedom fighter that day."
Her fight would not stop at the lunch counter. On March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, Miss Bland would join nearly 600 others in an attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on what is now known as Bloody Sunday. Miss Bland was on the bridge when the violence broke out.
"That’s when I heard what I thought was gunshots and screams," she said. "I thought they were killing the people down in front. Before we could turn around it was too late. They came in from both sides, the front and the back, and they were just beating people. Black, white, male, female, didn’t matter, they were just beating people. People lay everywhere, not moving, bleeding as if they were dead, and you couldn’t stop and help them or you would be beaten, too."
"Gunshots I heard turned out not to be gunshots, they were tear gas canisters being shot into the crowd. Tear gas burns your eyes, it gets in your lungs, you can’t breathe, you can’t see, you panic. Often times you run right back to the same people you’re running from. You could outrun the men on foot, you couldn’t outrun the ones on horses. People were being trampled. The last thing I remember seeing is this lady and this horse, and I don’t know to this day what happened. Did the man on the horse hit her and she fell, did the horse run over her? I don’t know. I do know I can still, all these years later, hear the sound her head made when it hit that pavement."
That same group, led by John Louis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, would later be granted federal protection and successfully make their way from Selma to Montgomery.
Miss Bland has been dedicated to her hometown ever since.
"I think it’s hard to live in a place and not care about it," she said. "I love my hometown. The things I do are because I love my hometown, and I want it to be the best hometown in the world. I don’t know if it’s my activism from growing up or what makes me want this place to be the best place. I think when people decide what they want their communities to be, the first thing you have to do is define your communities. You have to define what is a community. Is it your street, is it the area that you live in, is it the town that you live in? I define my community as the world, and my world has a rainbow. And if I don’t make my immediate surroundings better, how can I spread it?"
Miss Bland today lifts where she stands in Selma, Alabama, a town not unlike any rural American town, with boarded up shops, foreclosed homes and struggling to keep its head above water. In her community, Miss Bland stands as an example by donating to her local school system, empowering youth to get involved and educating people on the nation’s difficult path.
"This is just too important to the fabric of this nation to be forgotten," she said. "Our children need to know where we have been as a nation in order to take us where we need to be. Stand where we stood, hear that history, and connect to it, feel it, feel how painful it was so it will never ever come back."
We asked Miss Bland, “Where do we go from here?”
"I don’t know," she said. "If I knew, we’d already be there, and you’d be patting me on my back for making this world a better place. But I do know, we are going to have to start to recognize as human beings, not just African-Americans, not white, not Muslims, and separating ourselves from the same issues.
"I do know you need to get off your behinds and do something, especially you young folks, you wear the rights that we fought for so arrogantly. And you should, because some people died for you to have them. But you should also use those rights to make the world a better place than you found it. Not as you found it, but better than you found it."
UPR would like to thank our team of correspondents who brought us stories found in this series. Thanks to Utah State University students Alean Hunt, Brianne Johnson, Azalia Bocanegra, Anna Peterson and Hannah Bundy. And thanks to USU Faculty Frascois Denga, assistant professor of anthropology, Karen Sinaga, a post-doctoral teaching fellow with the department of history and Jason Gilmore, assistant professor of global communication.