(My video of JoAnne speaking to our group in 2009)
In 2009, I took a group of students to the American South as we traveled the path of the civil rights movement. We worshipped at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (home church of Martin Luther King), visited the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and ended our trip visiting The Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Along the way on this memorable road trip, we made an unforgettable stop in Selma, Alabama, a small town that was historically important to the story of America.
When I stepped out of the van, just outside of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, I was greeted by JoAnne Bland: “You must be Travis. Get over here and give me a hug; that’s how we do it in the South.” JoAnne then welcomed our group and led us on an inspirational walking tour of the town she calls home.
Selma, Alabama was the site of what is known as “Bloody Sunday”. On March 7, 1965, state troopers brutally attacked 500 to 600 civil rights demonstrators. The televised images were horrific. Men and women, young and old, were beaten back with tear gas, billy clubs and dogs. JoAnne Bland was there at that time, an eyewitness to history, an active participant in America’s struggle to right its wrongs and redeem its past. Only eleven years old at the time, she has the distinction of being the youngest person arrested and jailed during the civil rights demonstrations.
One of the more memorable moments on our visit occurred when JoAnne took our group to a piece of pavement behind a Head Start building. The place was non-descript, uninteresting to the uninformed. She ordered us all to pick up a rock and place the rock in our open palm. We did. She then began to look at each of our rocks and tell us stories. “Let me see your rock…..that rock in your hand is Bob Mants….” “Now let me see your rock, that one is Lynda Lowery, She was 14 years old on that bridge on March 7th. 14. She received wounds that required 26 stitches and then, still, three weeks later walked every step of the way from Selma to Montgomery.”
She went on to tell us, “I saved that cement so you could hold that history.” And then she proceeded to tell us why that cement pavement was so important. It marked out the place where the demonstrators gathered to begin their march. She then urged us to take back our little rock or pebble to Missouri and remember the fight and the struggle, telling us:
“When you see injustice committed against anyone, no matter who they are, and you feel like you can’t do anything, go pick up that rock and take from it the strength that ordinary people stood on that rock, ordinary people just like yourself, stood on that rock and walked right up to that bridge and made history that not only changed Selma, but this entire nation. And get up off your behinds, and do something. Can you do that?”
On Monday night, January 16th and the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, JoAnne Bland will be our guest at William Woods University and will tell stories of America’s struggle for justice and equality. As part of the President’s Concert & Lecture series, JoAnne’s talk will connect us to the past that paved a way for the future. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held in Cutlip Auditorium and begins at 7 pm.