Independence took much longer for different Americans

Published July 13, 2016

By Bill Vogrin

On the Fourth of July, I spent a lot of time thinking about independence and what it means.

Of course, everyone knows the basic story of Independence Day, how in 1776 the Continental Congress declared the 13 American colonies to be a new nation, the United States of America, free and independent of Great Britain, its monarchy, rules and taxes.

But true independence came much later for many Americans. And I couldn’t stop thinking about one of those Americans, Joanne Bland, whom I met on June 28.

Civil rights activist Joanne Bland describes the events of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when she and others tried to walk from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery as part of a voting rights campaign. Many of the peaceful marchers, including civil rights leader John Lewis, were beaten by white police who attacked them with tear gas, clubs wrapped in barbed wire and nails, dogs and on horseback. Photo by Bill Vogrin

My family and I were driving home from Georgia on vacation when we stopped in Selma, Ala. I had long wanted to stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River and try to imagine what it was like on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

That day, a Civil Rights group known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, led by John Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, tried to march from Selma to Montgomery as part of a voting rights campaign.

But the 600 or so marchers barely made it over the bridge before police in riot gear, some on horseback and many armed with clubs, violently attacked them.

The images of peaceful marchers being viciously clubbed, bitten by police dogs, trampled by horses and pounded to the pavement by fists and water cannons shocked the nation.

Among the marchers was 11-year-old Joanne Bland. Marching to gain equality for blacks was not a new thing for the young girl. By Bloody Sunday, Bland already had been jailed 13 times for participating in demonstrations as the fight by blacks to end segregation in the South intensified. She had joined the movement after attending organizing meetings with her grandmother.

You could argue Bloody Sunday was sort of an Independence Day for many American blacks. Though the march failed and some suffered serious injuries, the nation had awakened to the ugliness of segregation and the injustice of voter suppression and other racist tactics used by whites to oppress blacks.

I feel incredibly fortunate we got to hear the story directly from Bland after we happened to meet her in the National Park Service museum at the foot of the bridge on June 28.

Bland was there with a group of mostly school children, as part of her business “Journeys for the Soul.”

She leads tours of Selma’s Civil Rights historic places, including its famous First Baptist Church, which was headquarters for Lewis and the SNCC group. And she takes them to the nearby Brown Chapel, AME Church, which was the headquarters for Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Selma.

Her tours include stops at the museum, where movies and photos of Bloody Sunday tell the powerful story. Her tours end with a crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen on June 28, 2016, in Selma, Ala. It was the scene of a Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful voting rights marchers carried out by white police. Photo by Bill Vogrin

We met Bland as she was talking to a group about that day. She vividly described marching with her sister, Linda, two-by-two on the sidewalk over the bridge.

She recalled hearing screams at the front of the line and then teargas canisters being shot at the marchers.  Next came the hoofbeats of the horses as they knocked down and trampled fleeing marchers. And blood. Bland said there was so much blood.

Bland said she saw a woman trampled by a horse and the sight caused her to faint. When she awoke, she was in the backseat of a car with her sister, 14-year-old Linda.

“I felt what I thought was her tears on my face,” Bland said. “Then I realized it was her blood. Her whole face was covered with blood. She’d been beaten.”

She participated in two more marches in Selma, including the final, successful one on March 21. That day, about 6,000 people, led again by Lewis and joined by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other Civil Rights leaders, safely crossed the bridge and launched the five-day, 54-mile journey.

Ironically, many of the same Alabama State Troopers and Selma police who had viciously attacked them were forced by President Lyndon Johnson to serve as their escorts.

It was a riveting, first-person account of a monumental day in U.S. history. Of an Independence Day, if you will.

And like the version in 1776, independence didn’t come quickly and without more bloodshed.

Eventually, Bland left Selma to earn a college degree. Then she joined the Army, leaving as a staff sergeant, before finally returning to Selma to work for a national nonprofit organization teaching blacks the importance of leadership, academics, culture, economics and spirituality.

She said true independence has been slow to reach Selma, where an overwhelming black population has struggled to elect black leaders, despite huge gains in voter registration.

Hearing her story and ongoing frustration, it’s hard not to think of recent efforts to suppress voting again sweeping the nation.

Since 2008, many states have passed a variety of measures to make it harder for Americans — especially blacks, the elderly and those with disabilities — to vote by reducing early voting, enacting voter ID laws and purging of voter rolls.

So maybe Bland is right. Despite incredible gains made in the past half-century, including the election of a black president, maybe the fight for independence still goes on.