Former civil rights activist calls audience members to action

By Lara Bockenstedt

A former civil rights activist called audience members to action at UW-Eau Claire through personal stories and shared insight.

“We’ve come a long way. There’s still a long, long way to go,” activist Joanne Bland said.

Some 142 people gathered for an event titled “Bridge to Freedom: Connecting the Past and Today” which took place in Schofield Auditorium. The event is part of a larger series of events and exhibits through the University called “Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversation.”

Bland is a National Voting Rights Museum & Institute co-founder. She is also the author of the book “Stories of Struggle.” Having begun her activism in the early 1960’s, Bland was arrested 13 times by the age of 11.

The same footfalls leading Bland to the podium once marched on days such as Bloody

Bland ends speech and looks on as audience applauds

Joanne Bland ends speech and looks on as audience applauds. © 2015 Lara Bockenstedt


“I was a warrior,” Bland said. “I knew the procedure.”

After being introduced and telling her story of activism, Bland issued a call for action.

Repeatedly, she referred to audience members as “warriors.”

The audience, Bland said, can make change through word of mouth. Broadening friendship circles and one’s range of influence is the best method she said.

Social media was said by Bland to be an effective tool for change.

“It’s not the media’s responsibility to get the message out,” Bland said. “It’s yours. You’ve got to beat the media.”

Laura McDew, a liberal studies major and President of Eau Claire’s Black Student Alliance agreed with this statement. She described the pattern she witnesses on social media of sharing irrelevant content.

“We share things that our friends see,” McDew said, “so what’s our excuse for not sharing important things?”

During the question and answer session, Bland addressed a petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge. According to an article in USA Today, the bridge is named after a former grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

The bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday and the March to Montgomery National Public Radio said in a piece on the marches’ 50th anniversary. All marches which Bland told stories of partaking in.

“How could you be offended by that bridge?” Bland said towards those who signed the petition. “When you start to rename those things, you start to rewrite history.”

Prior to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Bland recalls seeing white kids being able to do what she could not. Her grandmother told her that when their people achieved freedom, Bland could have those same rights.

A while later, as the Bloody Sunday March approached physical conflict, Bland said she knew “whatever cost this freedom was, it was too much for this 11-year-old.”

A cost that repeatedly put Bland in jail.

Listen to Bland recount an excerpt of her story here.

After the speech, McDew said there should be more support for such events. Having arrived at Schofield with questions about how to get family and friends involved, McDew said she walked away with some answers.

“People who come here benefit,” McDew said. “People still need to hear what they (former activists) have to say.”

As the evening drew to a close, Bland concluded her time at the podium with an analogy.

“Movements are like jigsaw puzzles. Everybody represents a piece. Without your piece, the change puzzle would not be complete.”

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