“Ask yourself daily, what can I do to make the world a better place?”
“Do not be a silent witness. Just do it. You have to be the one.
We spent our winter break road tripping through the South—Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Memphis. We wanted to learn more about the Civil Rights movement and decided the only way to really dive-in was to see it up close and in person. We visited many historic sites and spent time at some terrific museums. But we learned the most from the people we met along the way.
In each town we visited, hands reached out to shake ours. Many times we were greeted with spontaneous hugs. The people we met often moved us to the point of tears.
Attending Southern gospel church services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was a highlight. MLK Sr. was pastor here, and in 1960 MLK Jr. joined his father as co-pastor. There must have been 1,000 people on the day we attended services, and many of them were regular congregants. Before our trip, the kids were worried about how we would we be perceived—a white Jewish family from California in a black Baptist gospel church in Atlanta? Their fears subsided immediately after we walked through the doors of the church, where we were welcomed and then escorted to a seat right up front. From the glorious music to the many people who came out from the aisles to shake our hands and greet us, we were deeply touched. We were a minority here in this church and yet, we felt so comfortable and accepted regardless of the color of our skin.
Another highlight was meeting and spending the day with Joanne Bland in Selma. Joanne was born and raised in Selma. She was active in the Civil Rights movement from a young age. By the time she was 11, she was arrested 13 times! We spent a wonderful day with Joanne. She showed us around town and told us all about her life. It was an unforgettable day.
Since today is MLK Jr. Day I want to honor Joanne and share her life and activism with you.
Joanne’s mother died when she was 4. She had a complicated pregnancy and needed a blood transfusion but was not allowed to go to the white hospital where she could have received the help she needed. The black hospital did not have the proper equipment, and she died there in the hospital hallway along with her unborn baby in September of 1957.
Her grandmother and her father then raised Joanne. Her grandmother was a strong woman and became active in Civil Rights. She joined an organization called the Dallas County Voters League and began to attend meetings there and brought Joanne along. At these meetings, they would discuss how black people should be allowed to vote. At the time, Joanne was just a little girl, and she was confused. She knew Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves but couldn’t understand why black people were not free to vote. Joanne told us that The Dallas County Voters League worked for 30 years before it got any media attention. When MLK Jr. came to Selma in 1965, the media came; he brought money, motivation and the media. But prior to that, no one knew. Men and women were marching in Selma since the 1930s and many were jailed because of their efforts.
As a little girl, Joanne encountered racism daily in town. She told us that black people couldn’t do a lot of things, like go to certain restaurants or try on shoes and clothes. There were separate facilities for almost everything. She shared with us a particular painful memory when her Grandmother took her get new shoes. Before they left home, her Grandmother measured her foot with a string so she’d know her shoe size. Joanne was excited because they didn’t normally go to town for something like this. When they got to the store, she saw a pair of shoes on the floor she really liked and tried them on. Her Grandmother quickly snatched them off her but it was too late. The sales clerk picked up the shoes and said “Here.” Her Grandmother then pulled the string out and said, “If you get her size I’ll gladly buy them.” “You don’t understand,” the sales clerk said, “you have to buy these shoes because that little nigger put her foot in it.” Joanne didn’t have any shoes that Easter because the shoes they had to buy were too big and they didn’t have money left to buy shoes that fit. She remembers crying and crying and crying. It was one of the very first times she felt like something was not just right with her because she was colored.
But, it was at the Carter’s lunch counter that young Joanne’s activism really took hold. Looking in the window of the lunch counter and seeing some white young girls sitting on stools happily eating ice cream, Joanne felt jealous. She longed to be on that stool, too. Her grandmother saw her gazing and said to her, “When we get our freedom, you will be able to sit on that stool and eat ice cream, too.” Joanne became a freedom fighter right then and there.
In the early 60s, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists organized Joanne and other area children and teenagers to participate in the movement. On the front lines of the struggle, Joanne marched on “Bloody Sunday” and “Turn Around Tuesday,” as well as the first leg of the successful March from Selma to Montgomery. It was on ‘Bloody Sunday” where she witnessed the brutal beatings of fellow marchers by police. She said she vividly remembers the screams — “people just screaming and screaming and screaming as the police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd.” She saw people being trampled and run down by horses, with blood everywhere. Later, having escaped, her head was in the lap of her sister, Lynda and she thought she felt her tears, but realized it was blood from a head wound.
The events she experienced during her time, particularly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during Bloody Sunday, shaped the course of her life. She went on to co-found The National Voting Rights Museum in Selma where she was also the Director. She continues her advocacy and speaks at conferences, workshops and schools all over the country.
Joanne wants us all to know that the movement was made up of thousands of people working together and not just the famous names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.
“Movements for change are like jigsaw puzzles,” she told us. “Everybody’s got a piece to contribute.”
Her grandmother used to tell her that, “mighty rivers are filled drop by drop.” She then asked my kids “Where is your drop?” She said they have to do their drop, their part-period.
If you find yourself in Selma, send Joanne an e-mail. She’ll show you all around her old stomping grounds. She’ll take you to the best place for fried chicken and black-eyed peas, too. I hope you listen to more of her story in her own words here.
Also, if you want to know more about our trip, send me an e-mail and I’m happy to share. The movie Selma is terrific—if you haven’t seen it yet, go today!