Civil and human rights activist Joanne Bland offered powerful and challenging words for the mostly younger generation in the audience when she spoke Thursday at Georgia Southern's Nessmith-Lane Conference Center. Her lecture, entitled "My Piece in the Puzzle of Social Change," stirred emotions and evoked a host of questions from college students.
The audience was silent as Bland gave first-hand details of "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery in March 1965. That march was to protest the inability of blacks to register to vote and to bring awareness to discriminatory practices taking place in the South, even thought the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation.
According to Bland, members of the Dallas County Voters League and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other members of the black community in Selma met one night at church to discuss the voter registration campaign.
"When they left the church, they were attacked by law enforcement," Bland said. "Jimmie Jackson watched his 82-year-old grandfather being beaten for no reason. When Jimmie raised his arm to block the beating, he was shot. He died three days later."
That led to plans for a peaceful, lengthy march to spotlight the plight of the non-voting blacks. Men, women and children, including 11-year-old Bland and her family members, gathered and began to walk. But state troopers and others blocked them at the county line and told them they could not cross the bridge.
"I heard gunshots and screams," Bland said. "It seemed like it lasted an eternity. Bones broken. People trampled. Horses stepping on people. I learned later it wasn't gunshots, but tear gas canisters thrown at us; tear gas that burned the eyes and forced the marchers back into the hands of the beaters. As long as I live, I will never forget the sound of a woman's head when it hit the road after being struck.
"The next thing I remember was being in a car, with my head in my sister's lap, her tears falling on my face. But it wasn't tears. My sister's blood dripped on my face. My 14-year-old sister had been beaten."
One week later, however, they marched again.
"I'm not ashamed to say I was scared. I didn't want that freedom. It wasn't worth it," Bland said.
Yet she marched again — and again later with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"We went over that very same bridge, and those same policeman that beat us had to protect us this time," she said.
As horrific as the events were that lead to blacks gaining the right to vote — Bland had been arrested 13 times by the time she was 11 — she is proud to have taken part in history-making and history-changing activism events.
"It's not just good enough to register; it's not just enough to vote," Bland told the audience. "You've got to be involved in the process. The moment we became involved, we had change. There will be no change until you get involved."
Bland spoke emphatically, imploring the audience to learn history, to know where we've been as a nation and to not make the same mistakes.
Making her point, Bland said her father once asked her to explain "racial profiling." After her explanation, he laughed.
"Daddy, that's not funny," she said, to which her father replied, "That was a way of life for me growing up. Now you got a fancy name for it."
"We keep renaming this crap instead of getting rid of it," Bland candidly told the audience.
Yet she said she doesn't believe violence is ever the way to social change.
"The whole rainbow of humanity needs to come to the table, put the issues on the table and find a way to resolve it," she said. "We're working toward the same goal: a peaceful society."
Despite everything Bland went through, she never considered giving up.
"I think that no matter what, you gotta keep trying," she said. "When you see something wrong, be the change.
"You have to realize your importance. You're part of the puzzle. Everybody has a piece in the puzzle of social change. ... The creator put you here for a reason."
Bland ended her lecture with words from her grandmother, who raised Bland after her mother's death and instilled a heart for change in her: "Mighty rivers are built drop by drop."
"If your drop and your drop and your drop and my drop all get together, we can build a might river to wash away all these troubles," she said, pointing to members in the audience for emphasis. "What will your drop be?"