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Joanne Bland

Aug. 8, 2003

Ninety miles away from Birmingham in Selma, Ala., 9-year-old Joanne Bland couldn't quite understand what was going on when news of the church bombing came. "Birmingham seemed like it was in Africa -- it was remote. I had no idea where it was. It couldn't happen here," she remembers thinking. But her grandmother's reaction told her otherwise. "All the women got together and prayed and wailed half the night," she says. The adults explained to her: "We were at war. People died. It was unfortunate it was children. But people were dying every day."

Throughout the next two years, the little girl entered the battle. By Selma's Bloody Sunday in March 1965, she'd already been jailed 13 times for demonstrating, once for eight days on a prison farm. Meanwhile, the voting registration movement of Selma began to grow. Marches originating at Brown Chapel Methodist Church thronged the streets, the protesters determined to impress upon the white power structure the insistence for American citizens' equal rights. Once again, children made up the bulwark. Joanne's older sister Linda was a fervent activist -- "My 's/hero,'" Joanne says -- and brought her younger sister along.

On the day of the Pettus Bridge disturbance, scheduled as a march from Selma to Montgomery, Joanne and Linda joined the crowds at one foot of the bridge. They already knew they'd be turned back by the mounted state troopers, but they waited for the front lines at the far end to kneel in prayer, as was the custom before commencing a march.

"Suddenly, we heard screams and gunshots (popping tear-gas canisters). Before we could turn around, the front had turned, too, and they were coming back across the bridge, screaming and hollering, and those men were behind, swinging billy clubs, just hitting anybody," Joanne says. "I don't know how long it lasted. It seemed like an eternity. If you could outrun those men on foot, you couldn't outrun the ones on horses. They ran those horses up into the crowd and were knocking people down, horses rearing up, kicking people. Blood was everywhere.

"I saw this horse running full speed -- I don't know why this woman didn't hear it. The sound of his hooves on that bridge was awful. She stepped right in front of it, and this horse ran right over her. The sound of her head hitting that pavement was the last thing I remember. I fainted," she says.

Joanne came to in the backseat of a car with Linda leaning through the window over her, with what Joanne thought were Linda's tears falling on her. "When I came fully awake, I realized what was falling on me was not her tears, it was her blood. She had been beaten. She had a wound on her head. Her whole face was covered with blood; it was dripping into her blouse and soaking everything. And she was only 14."

In those days, hearses from local funeral homes were used as ambulances, and when one came to take the girls to the hospital, Linda refused to get in it. They walked home, but couldn't reach their house because the troopers were on the streets terrorizing people, Joanne says. Instead, they went to the First Baptist Church.

"Other troopers were there, looking for a girl with a red coat on who had done something at the bridge. They burst up into the church and made us stand there. And guess who had on a burgundy coat?" Joanne says. "I remember praying that they wouldn't think it was me, because I hadn't done anything. (A trooper) took his billy club, lifted my lapel, and said, 'Is this her?' The other guy said, 'Naw, that ain't her.' Then they proceeded to run us out of the church. I remember this lady falling all the way down those steps. Her head hit that pavement, and this big goose egg, you could see it growing, came up."

It was a night of terror in the projects, she recalls. Her grandmother was out of town and she couldn't find her father. "These people (the police) had just gone crazy. They had a taste of that violence and just went on with it, shooting windows out of houses, beating people. It was like martial law," she says. "I was a kid. I needed somebody to love me and tell me it was going to be all right. I didn't want any more damn freedom. It was just too much."

The city government isolated the projects, lining the streets with troopers to prevent residents from entering or leaving. This lasted for three days, and then the barricades were abandoned. Soon after, Dr. King led his successful Selma-to-Montgomery march on March 17, when a court order granting the demonstrators safety was signed by Federal Judge Frank Johnson.

"And this time the front did go down, and Dr. Abernathy prayed. And those same mean policemen who had beat us had to protect us all the way," Joanne says. The direct result was President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

After high school graduation, Joanne moved to New York and attended college. She worked for a health care agency as a case manager, but at age 32, she joined the U.S. Army. "I worked for the Judge Advocate General section of the military, which put me in a good place where I could see all the wrongs that were there. So I was always fighting something -- racial issues, whatever. Any 'ism,' I wanted to get rid of it," she says. "That was fostered by my being from Selma and used to seeing that if you did something, you could make change."

In 1989, Joanne left the Army with the rank of staff sergeant and moved back to Selma. There, she continued to single-handedly raise the eight step- and foster children who had entered her orbit. Her first job was with the local chapter of the national nonprofit organization 21st Century, teaching the values of leadership, academics, culture, economics and spirituality to children of the black community. She then assumed the administration of MOMS (Mothers of Many), running meetings for mothers from every black social sphere -- senators' wives to welfare recipients -- discussing parental problems and devising strategies for dealing with them. In 1992, as an original board member for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Joanne became the museum's tour director.

"My goal in life is to touch as many children as I can," she says, a few minutes after conducting her third bus tour for the day: 30 black youth from Lansing, Mich., who had come to learn black history and wound up mesmerized by her humorous, dramatic oratory. Through each museum room her smoky voice rings, kindling fire in these Northern urban teenagers whose only contact with their legacies have derived from truncated accounts in dry textbooks and movies.

"I've learned that by hearing the stories, it gives them strength, because we're not yet where we need to be," she says. "If I know my stories of growing up here during that time can give them the strength to move on, to use as steppingstones to finish what we -- the generation before me and the ones before that -- started, that's where I want to be. Each step was a little higher. We just haven't reached the level playing field yet."

She goes on to cite as an example the church burnings of the last 10 years. These are arsons in which at least 167 black churches, among more than 391 houses of worship including Caucasian and Hispanic churches, Jewish synagogues and Muslim temples, have been destroyed throughout 12 states, according to the National Coalition for Burned Churches. One torched black Baptist church is located just outside Selma. The largest number of arsons -- 125 -- occurred in Texas.

"I used to say I want a color-blind world. Now, I just want a people-blind world," Joanne says. "As long as I'm a person, then treat me as such. I don't want my child to have more than your child; I don't want your child to have more than my child. I want all our children to have the same privileges. That's not much to ask."

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