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Ode to a Living Civil-Rights Memorial

"Ready to Serve" by Cedric Smith.

"You know who my president is, right?" asked Ms. Joanne Bland, Journey Specialist, with a bright smile that belied her tired brown eyes. She was a large woman with a big bosom, a deep, booming voice, and a military haircut. I was visiting the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama, the town where Ms. Bland was born in the early '50s.

Ms. Bland's question was rhetorical, but to illustrate the answer she held up a copy of her self-published, spiral-bound booklet, Stories of Struggle: Growing Up in the Segregated South, which she was selling for ten dollars. On its cover was a photograph of her posed next to Barack Obama. His arm was gallantly and tenderly thrown around her shoulder. "You all need to buy this," she pushed.

The photo was taken in 2007, when Obama came to Selma to give a speech from the pulpit of the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. In doing so, he claimed his lineage and indebtedness to the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Bland brought us to this same brick church, which stands across the street from the housing project where she was raised.

"Duck if you hear gunshots," she joked.

It was the sixth day of a weeklong Civil Rights tour of the South I was making along with a group of college students who were taking a seminar on the Movement. Six days, and I was emotionally exhausted.

After her joke, Ms. Bland got serious. "Dr. King chose Selma as the battleground for voting rights, and this was his headquarters."

Then she gestured with disdain at the memorial erected outside the church. It featured a bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., sitting atop a tall granite plinth. "Does anyone see what's wrong with this thing?" she asked. She pointed at the words etched in the stone.

We stared at the statue with glazed eyes. It wasn't so different from the many others we'd already seen on the tour.

By this point, we'd visited several monuments and museums and they had begun to blend into one another. In Atlanta, we walked down the stretch of Auburn Avenue featuring the restored Victorian home where Dr. King was born, the Ebenezer Baptist Church he co-pastored with his father, and the marble tomb where he is enshrined behind an eternal flame. At the National Park Service Visitor Center, we saw an exhibit of photos from his funeral and watched a nostalgic, low-budget film about the Sweet Auburn black business district (a casualty of integration) at the Afrocentric African American Panoramic Experience (APEX) Museum.

In Montgomery, we'd witnessed a reenactment of Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. We ran our fingers along the names of the Civil Rights martyrs, most of whom were ordinary men and women, engraved on a circular, black-granite table designed by Maya Lin at the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

We'd explored the rooms of the modest, white-clapboard house where Dr. King and his family lived when he served as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Inside the church, we stood in front of a mural depicting Dr. King's life. This was an integral stop on a vital educational, historical, and spiritual journey.

Visiting these sites made me remember the ritual of visiting the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic church where I was raised.  At each station, we were asked to witness a moment of agony in the crucifixion of the man who suffered to save us.

Like pilgrims, we'd moved on. At Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where police unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators, we took pictures of sculptures of attack dogs and fire hoses. 

But after six days, our senses were almost deadened. It was hard to focus on the memorial in front of the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church; to register the words Ms. Bland wanted us to read. The mistake she wanted us to catch. "Wake up! What does that say, young people?" she asked with exasperation.


"They put it in the past tense like they think the dream's over. That is a serious misquote. The man said, 'I have a dream.' Present tense."

This, like all of the memorials we visited on the tour, was designed to bring that righteous, longwinded, and bloody battle we call the Civil Rights Movement to life. None of them succeeded in this task as well as Joanne Blackmon Bland.

"I was there," she testified. "By the time I was eleven years old, I'd been to jail thirteen times. They'd stick forty or more of us children into a cell meant for two. They fed us dry beans with rocks as punishment for demonstrating to get our parents the right to vote. They meant to break our spirit. You have to understand how many foot soldiers of the Movement were children, and that the Movement was a revolution. We were at war. There isn't a slab of marble big enough to fit the names of all the ordinary people who fought. Follow me."

She walked us from the chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River like a steel rainbow. "I was eleven when I crossed this bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. My big sister, Lynda, and I were part of the peaceful marches, but there were mounted state troopers in riot gear on the other side. The frontline got pushed back. When I crested the bridge, I could see the police. I heard gunshots—what I thought were gunshots, since I had never heard gunshots before—but it was actually tear-gas canisters. When tear gas gets in your lungs you can't breathe, you can't see. We were surrounded. There was nowhere to go. They were beating people. What I remember the most were the screams.

"I don't know how long it lasted. It seemed like an eternity. If you could outrun those men on foot, you couldn't outrun the ones on horses. They ran those horses up into the crowd and were knocking people down, horses rearing up, kicking people, beating them with billy clubs. Blood was everywhere.

"I saw this horse running full speed—I don't know why this woman didn't hear it. The sound of his hooves on that bridge was something awful. She stepped right in front of it, and this horse ran right over her. The sound of her head hitting that pavement was the last thing I remember. I fainted," Ms. Bland said. "But forty-four years later, I can still hear that sound."

She came to with her sister leaning over her in the backseat of a hearse from the colored funeral home. "The hearse was being used as an ambulance," she explained. "When I came fully awake, I realized what I thought was Lynda's tears falling on me was not her tears, it was her blood. She had been beaten. She had a wound on her head. Her whole face was covered with blood; it was dripping into her blouse and soaking everything. And she was only fourteen."

Ms. Bland's last name didn't suit her at all. To listen to her talk, it felt like Bloody Sunday happened yesterday. Her account was terrifying, violent, and fresh. I no longer felt exhausted. I knew we were the first of three tours she was to give that day. She would have to tell this story again, and again. I asked her if she found it traumatic to relive those years of struggle.

"It does make me kind of tired," she admitted, "but it's a cleansing kind of tired. This is free therapy for me. Living through what I did made me the fighter I am. I know change is possible because I lived it. And I'm not just talking about conquering on a grand scale. I'm talking about change in our backyards and in our own selves.

"We have a grocery store here in Selma," she elaborated, "a black-owned establishment. A few years ago it used to be the dirtiest, most low-down, sorry grocery store with rotten vegetables and bad meat. Their food could make you sick, but I wanted to support it because it was the black store. I said to the manager, 'Your meat stinks, your produce is terrible, and your checkout girl has an attitude that makes me want to slap her to sleep.' I said it loud and I said it over and over again until they began changing things. Honey, you should see how clean that store is now."

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