Probably the key feature of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage is to put human faces on “issues.” Joanne Bland is one such face. She led our tour of Selma with drill sergeant-esque precision (she actually had a career in the military). She was gruff and blunt and intimidating…and then she would smile a kind of wry smile and give us a kind of sideways look. One of the women in our group had lots of questions on the walking tour. Joanne started saying, “Where’s that nosy woman?” and then take her off for a brief sidebar explanation.
It would be easy to wonder at first why Joanne still seems angry. After all, she fully acknowledges how much better things are for black people, even though she knows there’s much more to do. But then, it doesn’t take long to understand why. The Voting Rights Museum showed, among numerous other things, the African Americans who served in the U.S. Congress after the Civil War and before states began concocting legislation to prevent black people from sharing in the political process. (Dennis Simon told me that roughly twenty such persons had served in Congress between 1876 and 1900.) Real progress and then horrendous setbacks that lasted two generations. Numerous other such moments happened during the day.
We also learned that Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) didn’t stop once the marchers were beaten back across the bridge. Joanne told us that the beatings lasted all night long. People huddled and hid in the two churches (Brown Chapel and First Baptist) where the organizing had been done. If I remember correctly, Joanne said that she was 11 years old at the time and she was one of the marchers on the bridge. In 1963, two years and more before the Voting Rights Act was passed, people in Selma made regular trips to the courthouse to register to vote, only to be turned away and often arrested (there were city ordinances about the number of black people that could congregate publicly at one time).
I had been forewarned about Joanne. She brooks no fools and she’s clearly in charge of the tour. Sometimes she rubs people the wrong way (she knows it and doesn’t much care). But she also said more than once, “I’m not where I was, but I’m also not where I need to be.”
In free moments yesterday I found my mind returning to the same set of questions. I’m white, but a “northerner.” I grew up with parents who taught us not to be prejudiced – all people are created in God’s image. By the time I went to college, I had very little experience in racially mixed settings (except those 6 years in Texas as a boy). I didn’t want to be prejudiced, and wasn’t, in a sense, but still had some of the goofy stereotypes. All that to say, as I listened to Joanne, something inside me wanted to insist, “This problem was not my problem. Bad white people did this, but not all white people did it.” I felt myself wanting to distance myself from the problem. Which is part of the problem. And a typical one for white people.
Montgomery is quite different from Selma. More to come.