By Meghan Hosely
Civil rights activist Joanne Bland spoke to the Eau Claire community Monday night in Schofield auditorium, giving members a call to action to continue on with the civil rights movement.
“Movements are like jigsaw puzzles,” Bland said. “Everybody has a piece.”
Nearly 140 people were present in the auditorium to hear Bland speak as a part of Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversation, a month-long event focused on bringing the history of civil rights into contemporary society.
Bland said by the time she was 11 years old, she had been arrested 13 times in her hometown of Selma, Alabama. According to her website, Bland’s early involvement in the struggle of civil rights has been the “foundation for her civil and human rights work throughout her life.”
When she was younger, Bland said her curiosity towards human rights started when she would look into a popular restaurant, Carter’s, and want to sit at the lunch table. At the time, only white people were allowed to sit there.
Eventually, Bland said she found herself joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but “flunked,” because she was taught to strike back when others were physical with her.
It was also at that time when Martin Luther King Jr. decided to make Selma the headquarters for the voting rights movement, she said, which demanded the rights for black people to vote. The plan was to do a nonviolent march from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery, Alabama.
On March 7, 1965, activists set out from a church in Selma and to cross Edmund Pettis Bridge, moving toward Montgomery, Bland said. Bland was with her sister and her friend, near the back. The plan was to return to the church if everyone was stopped by the police. She said everyone stopped on the bridge, but no one turned around.
Instead, the police ambushed the crowd from the front and back, she said, beating people and letting out tear gas. People tried to escape, but Bland said it was hard to tell which way to go due to the gas.
“You know what I remember the most?” Bland asked the audience as she recalled Bloody Sunday. “The screams.”
The activists found success the third time they marched from the church, and this time, King was there to support. Bland said the march took five days, and activists camped on the side of the road at night.
Bland said she was there for the first leg of the trip, and returned to march with the crowd as they closed in on the capital in Montgomery.
Although the movement Bland participated in was more than 50 years ago, she said there’s still work to be done. She told the crowd she has hope for future generations.
“There’s a generation of people out here who are going to change it once and for all,” Bland said.
Casie Kamph, a senior at UW-Eau Claire, said she attended Bland’s speech because she met Bland in Selma on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, and wanted to hear from her again. She said by Bland speaking to everyone, it gives people the knowledge to make a difference.
“She inspires this generation to be the change that needs to be seen in this world,” Kamph said. “And I think everything about what she’s lived through and every belief that she stands on is something that is important for people to hear.”