By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 27, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) No one has told the story of Selma more often than Joanne Bland, or found more renewal in its repeating.
“It stays fresh because we say it so much. I’m serious. I believe I say the same thing in my sleep,” said Bland, the executive director and chief tour guide at the homespun National Voting Rights Museum & Institute a stone’s throw from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On March 7, 1965, the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, some 600 men, women and children _ an 11-year-old Joanne Bland among them _ crossed the bridge in Selma, Ala., with the intention of marching to Montgomery for voting rights. On the other side, they were confronted by state troopers and a sheriff’s posse, who beat the marchers back, hastening congressional enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the demise of the racial order the lawmen sought to defend.
The museum coordinates the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, March 1-4, which on Sunday will feature simultaneous speeches by Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama at Brown Chapel AME Church and Hillary Clinton just a few hundred yards up Martin Luther King Street at First Baptist. Late Thursday the Clinton campaign announced that former President Bill Clinton would be accompanying his wife to Selma.
It promises the kind of celebrity hoopla that can crease the brow of the imperturbable Bland, who believes the most important thing to know about Selma is that “ordinary people made the history.”
But she figures that in this case, the presence of these two candidates _ a black man and a white woman _ says something very good about what the freedom struggles of the 1960s have wrought.
Seventy-eight thousand people visited the museum last year. Students, church groups, black family reunions, tourists, pilgrims, and in two days in February, every fourth-grader in surrounding Dallas County.
When you walk through the doors, there is a mirrored wall bearing the image of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Some years ago, Bland began to ask arriving schoolchildren to look in the mirror. Then she would point:
“You see that doctor over there, and that’s a future congressman and, my word, I think I see the president _ I always pick a female _ can you say `Madam President’? Then we let them know that there was a period in history that you couldn’t look in the mirror and say those things, couldn’t see a woman president, wouldn’t even think about a black president. So that’s what we fought for. I think Obama personifies that, but Hillary does too.”
U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, the congressman who represents Selma, invited Obama to speak, calling his candidacy “the embodiment of the work that was done in the 1960s.” Then the museum learned Clinton was coming. Alabama is looking at an early presidential primary next year in which blacks could comprise close to half the Democratic vote.
Bland really likes the freshman senator from Illinois.
“There’s a part of black people,” she said, “when they watch `Wheel of Fortune’ and see a black person, they root for the black person. Doesn’t matter if they’re dumb as hell, they’re black and every black person has that.” And Obama? “He’s brilliant.”
By age 11, Bland had been arrested more than a dozen times.
Freedom was not just an abstraction. She envied the white girls twirling on the counter stools at the Carter drugstore. “My grandma told me, `When we get our freedom, you can sit on that stool.”’
It was her grandma who took her to hear Martin Luther King Jr. at Brown Chapel.
“What I remember most about Dr. King was how soft his hands were, and how he listened to us,” Bland said. “When he asked you something he’d look you straight in the eye, like he really wanted to know what you really wanted to tell him.”
Bland left Selma after high school. She joined the Army, became a staff sergeant. Once, in a sidewalk cafe with a view of the Eiffel Tower, some Parisians asked where she was from. “Selma.” The excited reply: “The bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they beat them up.”
“No,” Bland remembers replying. “They beat me up. They beat us up. Telling them, with them listening so intently, I felt special.”
On a visit home in 1989, Bland stayed. She helped found the museum in 1993.
The tours are therapy. “It’s funny,” she said. “Sometimes it’s more vivid than others. Sometime I can even feel that terror that I felt that day.”
She wonders what the fidgety fourth-graders take in.
When her granddaughter smashed her finger in the door at church on a recent Sunday, the pair ended up at the emergency room, where a little boy approached Bland and began reciting her tour, word for word.
“Well, somebody does listen,” Bland thought.
Upwards of 50,000 people come to Selma for Jubilee. Bland thinks this year could top 100,000. It culminates in the Sunday afternoon re-enactment of the bridge crossing, which Bland avoids. She doesn’t like the way the dignitaries lead, while “the local people who did the work, laid the groundwork, put their lives on the line, they always get pushed to the back.”
But she wouldn’t mind walking Obama across the bridge earlier in the day.
“I’ll be in my Miss Bland mode,” she said. “When I really flaunt my executive directorship.”