SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2012

During spring break 2012, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

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‘What are you going to do?’

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

The pilgrims' Selma to Montgomery march started at Brown Chapel AME Church.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., is just as high and steep today as it was 47 years ago – and you can’t see what’s on the other side until you reach the very top.

When 600 civil rights marchers moved slowly across the bridge on March 7, 1965, they didn’t see the line of Alabama State Troopers and sheriff’s deputies on horseback until they reached the crest.   The troopers were waiting for them with clubs and gas masks, but they kept walking.

The marchers were ordered to disperse, and when they did not, the troopers and sheriff’s posse rushed the crowd – kicking men, women and children, hitting them with nightsticks and running them down on horseback.  The brutal confrontation came to be known as Bloody Sunday, and because it was so well-documented by the news media, served as a major catalyst in the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Selma resident Joanne Bland

SMU’s civil rights pilgrims walked the same bridge Monday in a slow, drizzling rain, and came off the span at the exact location where Alabama troopers and sheriff’s deputies attacked the marchers.  But it was Joanne Bland, a Selma resident who was only 11 years old when she tried to march across the bridge that day, who brought to life Bloody Sunday and the events leading up to it.

She is strong in her opinions, both earthy and humorously confrontational in the way she delivers them, and isn’t about to let anyone forget the legacies of that movement: One of the first things Bland tells you is how much she hates it when people say the heroes of the civil rights era “gave their lives” for civil rights.

“They did not give their lives – they were murdered!” Bland said.

Bland’s tour of Selma is a portrait in stark black and white – an examination of how two societies in the Jim Crow era of segregation lived in the same town, but used different entrances and water fountains, used the public library on different days and even used separate hospitals.  Bland’s mother died of complications from pregnancy when the blood transfusion she needed was not available through what was then the “colored hospital,” and the transfusion was refused her at the white hospital because even blood was segregated by race.

“My mother died because there was no ‘black’ blood,” Bland said.

SMU pilgrims cross Edmund Pettus Bridge.

So it was left to Grandma to explain that only the white children would sit inside Carter’s Drug Store and eat ice cream as they twirled around on the shiny, silver stools. “When we get our freedom, you can do that, too.” Grandma told her.

“I became a freedom rider that day,” Bland recalled.  As soon as young people realized they could join the protests for voting rights in Selma, they did, Bland said, adding that she was first thrown into jail with other children for her participation in protests at the tender age of 8.

“We’d come home, take a bath, and be right back in their face.”

But things really heated up when Martin Luther King started coming to Selma, she said.  He probably didn’t make more than about seven trips in all, she said, but where King went – the news media followed.  And that made all the difference in how effective your protest would be.

The planned march from Selma to Montgomery grew in response to the death of a young demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed by a police officer while trying to defend his grandfather during a protest march in Marion, Ala.  Some leaders in the movement vowed to march all the way to the state capitol and deliver Jackson’s coffin directly to Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

The troopers waiting at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge were there on Wallace’s orders to stop the march, and Bland vividly remembers what happened when the column of marchers refused.  She heard what she thought were gunshots, but later proved to be the sound of tear gas canisters being fired into the crowd.

“It was awful,” Bland recalled.  “I had never experienced violence.  I knew we weren’t going to Montgomery.  They were just beating people!

“You know what I remember the most? The screams.  It seemed like it lasted an eternity,” Bland said.  And while history records the violence as the “incident” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bland says the troopers and the sheriff’s deputies on horseback followed the marchers back into town and continued to beat them.

“What happened at the bridge happened all night long,” Bland said.

People poured into Selma from all over the country as a result of the news coverage of the violence, vowing to complete the march.  When the protesters re-grouped to attempt it two days later, Bland and her sister were back with them.  “I was scared,” she said, but a federal judge had issued an injunction to stop another march and Martin Luther King kneeled, prayed and turned the group around when they met another phalanx of troopers at the base of the bridge.

Two SMU pilgrims uneasily check out the view from a civil rights-era jail cell in the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala.

But everything changed a week later – President Lyndon Johnson called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the federal injunction was lifted.  When the group of what had now swelled to 4,000 people left Selma to march to Montgomery, they walked under the protection of 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard (federalized by President Johnson) and another 2,000 soldiers, as well as FBI agents and federal marshals.  They arrived in Montgomery on March 25, where the group swelled to 25,000 people as they approached the state capitol.

“Do you know that six months later they passed the Voting Rights Act?” Bland asked. Then, she then leaned over toward the group of SMU pilgrims and a smattering of college students from Minnesota and issued a challenge:

“When you cross that bridge, I want you to think, what are you going to do? The people who fought for the rights you wear so arrogantly had eighth-grade educations.”

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