“Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday …” We Shall Overcome, anthem, American Civil Rights Movement
When co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute in Selma, AL, Joanne Bland speaks, people listen.
It’s not Ms. Bland’s resounding baritone voice, distinct and articulate, that causes us to take notice.
It’s her story that commands our attention, so much so that we can’t help but wait on every word. Not just one story, but hundreds, no, thousands that represent her experiences and those of so many others who grew up in the segregated South. True accounts that penetrate our world and then go onto to shatter our sensibilities of what’s normal in America.
Ms. Bland’s accounts do not have soft “Once upon a time …” beginnings. Nor do they have happy endings. Instead, she ushers in – front and center – the truth about our history of mistreatment of Blacks in America.
She personally hand-delivers the atrocious treatment, including discrimination, torture and murder of African Americans throughout her years as a young protester during the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, as an educator, spiritual guide and mentor, Ms. Bland enlightens her audiences with facts about Black History that we all must reckon with and never forget.
Calling up ugly details conveniently left out, overlooked or simply not focused on when we studied American history, hers is a reality check – a litany of injustices of being denied freedoms we take for granted.
One such account tells of the gruesome unfairness of being jailed at age 11. It was not just an overnight stay in jail, but for days, she was locked in a crowded cell meant for two people, only 40 Black protesters were packed in with her, all for wanting the same freedoms as white folks.
Joanne Bland does not mince words, either. Telling it like it was, growing up poor and black in the Deep South, circa 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Bland stays keenly focused on topic.
She shares history lessons for us all, which do not belong to her alone, but are shared by her forefathers and mothers, hundreds of thousands of African Americans who sojourned after the Civil War when slaves were supposed to be freed, but were not really free due to our nation’s repressive white culture at the time.
One is titled “The Bus Ride” from a collection, “Stories of Struggle” written by Ms. Bland and her sister Lynda Blackmon Lowery.
Every year when school was out, her father put her, two sisters and little brother, Al, on a bus to Uniontown, AL, to spend the summer with their grandmother. One such summer, it was only she and Al who made the summer journey.
Boarding the transit at Uniontown, they saw that no other passengers were on the bus. Excited, Al sat in the first seat so he could have the thrill of watching the driver. The driver told him to move to the back of the bus, but Al did not move, contesting that he could have his pick of seats, since no one else was on the bus.
The driver proceeded to use the “N” word, crudely commanding that those of Al’s and Joanne’s race only ride in the back of the bus.
At that moment, Al’s innocence was shattered, and Joanne’s heart ached for her little brother. Taking his hand, nine-year-old Joanne gently pulled him to the back, where they rode in silence 30 miles to Uniontown.
Upon arriving at their destination, she told her grandma what had happened. Holding Al, his grandmother reassured him that one day, he would sit wherever he wanted to sit on that bus. One day, he could even drive the bus. One day, he could own the bus.
Today, that little boy, who more than 50 years ago was denied the freedom of sitting wherever he wished on an empty bus, owns a fleet of vans that transport the elderly and ill to medical facilities throughout town.
While he did not buy the bus, Joanne explains, he transports people of all races wherever they want to go, treating everyone who boards his vans with equal respect and dignity.
Alfred Blackmon, Jr., is making this world a better place – one bus ride at a time.