Photo by Deborah D. Douglas
Photo by Deborah D. Douglas
JoAnne Bland, who leads tours around Selma, was among the littlest protestors on Bloody Sunday.
From Selma to Little Rock, meet the women who risked their lives to make America’s parchment paperwork mean something.
For JoAnne Bland, every month is Black History Month. As a midcentury civil rights movement activist and U.S. Army veteran, the Selma, Alabama, tour guide was among the littlest protestors in 1965 when throngs marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge headed to Montgomery to demand voting rights. Bland was there on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, when marchers were beaten and gassed by white law enforcement officers.
To meet Bland, 69, is to meet history itself.
“I just had 57 children from California, and you could see the transformation is a whole different ball game than sitting in a classroom trying to learn this history,” Bland tells AFAR after a long day breathing life into the story of Selma’s impact on civil rights, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Bland is just one of several amazing women of the movement in places like Selma, Little Rock, and beyond, who risked their lives to make America’s parchment paperwork mean something. The fight continues as citizens hold tight to hard-won rights to vote, get a job, or love whomever they want, realities the movement made possible—then and now.
As a spot on the officially recognized civil rights trail in the South, Selma is also home to voting rights stalwart the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, who began organizing with her husband, Sam Boynton, in the 1930s. A house museum dedicated to Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson and her husband stands here as tribute to their organizing support and the soft landing they gave to VIP guests such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel.
Busloads follow Bland’s tours from historic spots such as Brown Chapel A.M.E., the hub of organizing activity, to the Selma Interpretive Center at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Standing transgressively in the town cemetery where Confederates are buried, she gives context to long-held tensions from America’s founding. Notably, a marker honoring Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white mother from Detroit, sits on U.S. Highway 80, about 20 miles east of Selma. Here are six other women civil rights leaders, some living, all legendary—and where to learn more about them.
Pauli Murray can easily be placed in Durham, North Carolina, where her childhood home now serves as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and where her countenance appears on murals in this town rich in Black history. But it was in Washington, D.C., as a student at Howard University School of Law, where she challenged the idea of Plessy v. Ferguson, which made “separate but equal” the law of the land. Indeed, Howard law professors and students played a key role in developing the strategy behind Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which saw the U.S. Supreme Court desegregate public schools.
“One of her professors, Spottswood Robinson, bet her that Plessy v. Ferguson would not be overturned in 25 years,” says the center’s executive director, Barbara Lau, of Murray, the queer, feminist, legal theorist and human rights activist, and the first African American Episcopal priest. “She wrote her senior paper in the mid-1940s, so clearly she won the bet.”
In 1971, Murray wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon in application to the Supreme Court, the Washington Post reported: “My application is to forestall the popular misconception that no qualified women applied or are available,” Murray wrote.
Now that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faces confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first for a Black woman, it is an auspicious time to connect with museums and government institutions that highlight the trail and the people who made this possible. There’s no better place to begin than the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a breathtakingly full story of Black history, including the midcentury movement and Murray’s place in this journey.
Barbara Johns was 16 in 1951 when she led a walk-out of her all-Black school to demand better learning conditions. Today, Robert Russa Moton High School is a working museum where classrooms are reimagined galleries that tell the story of students who wanted better for themselves than shoddily built, overcrowded classrooms. (Their case was ultimately rolled into one of five included in Brown v. Board.)
“Barbara Johns lit a fire in the student movement, but it was her fellow students working collectively who made the strike work,” says Mia Henry, CEO of Freedom Lifted, a social justice education and consulting firm. “It laid the foundation for student leaders to continue the struggle for years until the Brown decision three years later. The Farmville community were the only plaintiffs in the case made up of solely students.”
Ruleville honors civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, buried with her husband, Pap, in Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Gardens that features a bronze statue of Hamer holding a microphone. She is notable for many reasons, including running for Congress in 1964 after she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, determined to be more inclusive, registering new voters. Situated in the Delta, a pilgrimage to Hamer’s grave is just one must-see stop on civil rights and blues trails. Remember: Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to open the casket of her teen son—Emmett Till—revealing his body that was mutilated by white supremacists here was a catalyst of the midcentury movement.
Home to historic walking tours and hot chicken, Nashville is where Diane Nash, a Chicago native and Fisk University student, found her way to moving the movement. “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color,” Nash famously asked Nashville Mayor Ben West in 1960 when activists confronted him on the steps of City Hall. Nashville was the first major southern city to begin desegregating lunch counters.
Elizabeth Eckford is the teen girl in many of those vintage photos showing angry white protestors haranguing and abusing her as she tries to enter Little Rock Central High School. A member of the Little Rock Nine selected to enforce Brown v. Board, Eckford is seen all alone in those photos because she didn’t have a phone: She didn’t get the call that the students’ staging area had been moved to the home of Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist and publisher who shepherded them.
Learning in that environment was tense, says Eckford, describing a history lesson: “Once there was one time that was extremely striking to me. She said such horrible things,” Eckford says of a teacher’s twisted version of Civil War history, rendered as the falsely framed United Daughters of the Confederacy version. “There was no outrage, there was no surprise among the white students. So I had to conclude they heard these kinds of things before.”
As the Reverend James Lawson tells it, Ella Baker was working with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she persuaded him to invest in a gathering of college activists to harness their energy and ideas. Encouraged by the sit-in movement, sparked on February 1, 1960, by the Greensboro Four who sat in at a popular Woolworth counter at risk of bodily harm, Baker secured space at her alma mater, Shaw University. This is when and where the iconic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born. The Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro area offers many opportunities to see the potential for change that Baker saw, including the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in nearby Greensboro. The museum is located in the old F. W. Woolworth’s building where the North Carolina A & T University students made their stand by sitting down and where that same lunch counter is preserved.
Deborah D. Douglas is author of the award-winning Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement (2021) and coeditor in chief of The Emancipator, reimagining the nation’s first radically abolitionist newspaper for a new day.
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