By Alyssa Anderson
A former child foot soldier of the voting rights movement called University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students to action while recounting her experiences on Bloody Sunday.
“I have hope that this generation will change the world,” Joanne Bland said. “You are the ones we’ve been waiting for, you just have to be.”
Speaker and activist Bland delivered a message advocating for social change to an audience of nearly 140 students, faculty and community members on Monday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. in Schofield Auditorium while describing her experiences during the civil rights movement.
Information on her website indicates that Bland’s activism began in the early 1960s. By the age of 11, she was a seasoned and trained marcher for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization that helped coordinate the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. By the time she was 11, Bland had been arrested a documented 13 times.
“They put us in cells made for one or two people, but I have never been in a cell with less than 40 or 50 people in it,” Bland said. “Everything the police did was an attempt to break our spirits, but I’d go right back to the SNCC and end up back in jail the same day I got out.”
On March 7, 1965, Bland began the first of three marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the hope of making it from her hometown of Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in order to demand the right to vote, she said.
However, Bland said marchers only made it halfway across the bridge until the peaceful march turned into mass chaos as state troopers initiated brutal attacks on the marchers, naming the day “Bloody Sunday.”
“I still remember all the screaming,” Bland said, “And, as I stand here 50 years later, I can still hear the sound of a woman’s head hitting the pavement.”
After being knocked unconscious, Bland said she woke up only to discover that her 14-year-old sister had been brutally beaten. But that did not stop her.
“Two days later, I held that sister’s hand as we followed Dr. King back across the bridge,” Bland said.
Once again, they did not make it across.
No one crossed that bridge until March 21, 1965, after Martin Luther King Jr. received a court order allowing marchers to safely complete the 51 mile journey to Montgomery, Bland said.
“The same police who attacked us protected us all the way to Montgomery,” Bland said. “The walk took five days… People slept on the ground and walked through the rain.”
Media coverage of the march led to a huge public outcry, according to the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute’s website. Five months later, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The Voting Rights Act was a monumental step in American History, but, according to Bland, America still has plenty of work to do in terms of social justice.
“If you understand the troubles and triumphs of the past,” Bland said, “You can help to build a better future.”
Bland, co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, regularly presents at civil rights conferences and workshops across the U.S with her touring agency,Journeys for the Soul, according to her website.
“Bland’s message is important to hear repeatedly,” Angie Stokes, audience member, said, “We are all warriors, everyone needs to do something to make the world better.”
While she discussed her experiences as a young civil rights activist, Bland provided a new perspective on social justice.
“Movements of social change are like jigsaw puzzles,” Bland said, “Everyone has a piece in the puzzle. If your piece is missing, the picture isn’t complete.”