Joanne Bland was an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Selma, Alabama, when she marched into history, joining hundreds of activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a demonstration that turned into one of the bloodiest confrontations of the civil rights movement.
Baton-wielding state troopers and horse-mountedmembers of the sheriff’s posse, plunged into the peaceful crowd that day in March 1965, breaking bones and cracking skulls. Bland’s 14-year-old sister Linda, standing not far behind march leaders John Lewis and Hosea Williams, was struck in the face and the back of the head.
“It was horrible,” Bland recalls now. “There was this one lady, I don’t know if the horse ran over her or if she fell, but all these years later, I can still hear the sound of her head hitting that pavement.”
The march — known as Bloody Sunday — so shocked the nation that it helped mobilize Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. That landmark legislation finally dismantled the Jim Crow-era laws that relied on obscure civics tests, discriminatory poll taxes and violence to deny full citizenship to all Americans.
But today, 55 years later, Bland feels as though she’s re-living parts of the past as she surveys a country riven by racial tension, where Black men and women die too often at the hands of police, and in which states press ahead with purging voters from their rolls and enforcing strict voter identification laws — even as a once-in-a-century pandemic stalks their citizens.
“Sometimes I wake up and I think we are paralleling the 60s all over again,” Bland said in an interview from her home in Selma, where she leads tours of the city’s civil rights landmarks. “The laws that they passed to prevent African Americans from voting were insurmountable, and states could make up their own rules. That’s pretty much where this is going now.”