Joanne Bland: Views from the Edmund Pettus Bridge

By Jan Jenkins

“Voting is not a right, it’s a responsibility,” Joanne Bland told more than 700 people at two events hosted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan Feb. 11.

Motivated by her grandmother who would urge her to “Go get your freedom,” Bland and her two sisters participated in the three 1965 Selma, Alabama, protest marches that advocated for voting rights and infamously crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

“Joanne is a stark reminder that those who protested during the 1960’s civil rights movement were ordinary individuals who took extraordinary steps toward gaining their personal freedom,” said Elaine Hardy, MLK Commission chair. 

Throughout 2020, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan is recognizing the 55th anniversary of the voting rights struggle. Bland spoke at the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce Economic Club February luncheon and at a public event at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center that evening. 

Many of Bland’s comments were especially directed to the young people in the audience during the public event.

She emphasized personal action: “Movements for social change are like jigsaw puzzles. Every person is a piece. If your piece is missing, the picture is not complete. Why? Because you’re the most important piece.”

During the first Selma march in 1965, now known as Bloody Sunday, Bland was witness to the brutal beating of peaceful protesters by law enforcement. An horrific memory she can’t forget is the sound of a beaten woman’s head hitting the pavement near her.

By age 11, Bland had been arrested 13 documented times. At age 13, she was one of seven black students who integrated the all-white A.G. Parrish High School in 1970. Her involvement in the civil rights movement led her to cofound Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in 1991.

Today, Bland focuses on educating people about the events that helped attain voting rights in 1965 and how those rights are now being chipped away. She operates Journeys for the Soul, a tourism company specializing in civil rights tours with a major focus on Selma.

The evening event was co-sponsored by East Lansing Human Relations Commission and MSU Federal Credit Union.

Founded in 1980, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan works to support equality, diversity and social justice. It focuses on the area’s pressing issues of literacy, youth violence, hunger, mentoring, education and community enrichment. The nonprofit organization hosts speakers, concerts and community conversations; supports community service agencies; and promotes youth initiatives, such as essay and art contests, college scholarships and an annual Y-Achievers cultural immersion tour for high school students.

Content by Jan Jenkins/Publicom, Inc | Photos by Jan Jenkins/Publicom,Inc.

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