Former child foot soldier teaches by telling her story

By Kristin McLeod

Joanne Bland recalled her experiences through the civil rights movement in front of an audience in Schofield Auditorium at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. © 2015 Kristin McLeod

a civil rights activist and former child foot soldier delivered a call to action speech on modern civil rights for students and faculty of UW-Eau Claire as well as members of the Eau Claire community on Monday.

“Violence has no place in this society. Violence has no place in this world,” Joanne Bland began her speech.

According to event organizers, nearly 140 people were present in Schofield Auditorium to hear Bland speak as a part of “Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversation”, a month long exhibit focusing on the history of the civil rights movement and its relevance in contemporary society.

The speech focused on many historical events that Bland lived through and highlighted the police brutality, foot soldiers, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and her personal experiences of Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL at the age of 11.

“As I stand here 50 years later, I can still hear the sound of her head as it hit that pavement,” Bland said referring to a memory of one of the women trampled by a horse on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 during Bloody Sunday.

Bland included her sister’s experience with the police beatings as well and remembers the bloody details.

“Whatever the cost of freedom was too much for this 11-year-old,” Bland said.

Her work began at 11-years-old when she became a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. By 11, she was in jail 13 times, Bland said.

Today, she is co-founder for the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute and organizes Journey for the Soul for college students and other groups who want to learn about the history of the civil rights movement.

Audience members engaged with Bland at the end of her speech by asking questions related to the current actions that need to take place in today’s society regarding civil rights.

“I don’t have answers. I found my niche by telling lessons of the past. If you learn the lessons of the past, the mistakes and the triumphs of the past can build a better future,” Bland said.

Some audience members, including lead coordinator for the university’s civil rights pilgrimage, Olivia Vruwink, found Bland’s speech important for everyone to hear.

“If we all thought that we don’t have the power to change anything, nothing will get done” Vruwink said.

“Many students from Eau Claire, majority are white, come from small rural towns and they don’t have any context. This is perhaps the first time that they are learning about such an important set of events,” Vruwink added.

Vruwink encouraged other UW-Eau Claire students to attend the civil rights pilgrimage, which occurs over winterm and spring break, to increase knowledge and awareness about the issue.

Bland garnered a standing ovation from the audience and will continue to tell her story to North High School, Memorial High School, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls later this week.

Bland closed her speech and said, “movements are like jigsaw puzzles. Everybody represents a piece. Without your piece, the change puzzle would not be complete.”

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