Friday, July 24, 2009

Connecting Young People and Our Civil Rights History: Selma Historian/Guide Joanne Bland and Milwaukee filmmaker Scott Rivera

On the July 26, 2009 Forward Forum:

Click to Hear Archived Show

Guests Joanne Bland and Scott Rivera (inset photos) join us for a very special edition of our show, to discuss their joint participation in Scott's 2008 documentary, Exact Change, which chronicles the journey of 25 Milwaukee high school students to the civil rights sites of the Deep South. An adult chaperone on a life-changing bus trip sponsored by the Milwaukee-based Nehemiah Project, Scott documented the trip and the experiences of these young people in his remarkable film. This includes capturing the fascinating interchange that occurs between Selma to Montgomery March veteran Joanne Bland and that group of young people, as she challenges them to fully engage and relate to a history with profound ongoing relevance to their lives.

All of this was recently discussed by Scott on a September 2008 episode of Wisconsin Public TV's Director's Cut, with host Charles Monroe-Kane, who, in turn shared his impressions with us about the film and Ms. Bland on the June 5, 2009 Forward Forum.

Although she's based out of her hometown of Selma, Alabama, Joanne Bland is among our most frequent and favorite visitors to Forward Forum. She is a much-respected oral historian, who describes in compelling detail her memories as an 11-year-old attending the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. (At that young age, she had already been arrested 13 times as a result of her participation in non-violent civil rights protests. To hear her story, follow this link to her interview with Amy Goodman, recorded in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the march.) That historic march began bathed in the blood of its non-violent participants at the hands of Gov. George Wallace's Alabama state troupers in shocking scenes broadcast nationwide, ultimately drawing allies from across the country and world, proving to be the catalyst for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, later that year.

In August of 2006, Forward Forum broadcast live from Selma's National Voting Rights Museum, which Ms. Bland co-founded. She is a frequent visitor to Madison and Wisconsin, thanks to a relationship forged almost a decade ago with the UW-Madison, and parallel relationship in Milwaukee, forged after her participation in a conference entitled, "Milwaukee: the Selma of the North." Resonant with the journey depicted in the film, countless UW-Madison students have traveled to Selma, to experience firsthand the history of this place central to the civil rights and voting rights struggles. And yet few people in the greater Madison community are aware of that relationship, or have benefited from it. That's something we're working to change.

Milwaukee native and UW-Madison alumni Scott Rivera is a media producer for Leaping Frog Productions, and has worked in film, documentary and television production since 1994. Scott's projects include School Takeover: A Case Study in Compton, CA (54 min., documentary) and Exact Change (66 min. documentary). Scott is a segment producer for Milwaukee Public Television, and his production experience includes broadcast television, corporate media, and work on feature films in Los Angeles.

He describes Exact Change as follows: "For many Milwaukee youth, our nation’s fight for civil rights is a far-off story told through a handful of black and white photographs, ending with the words, 'I have a dream.' But that perception [was] about to change for a select group of Milwaukee teens.

"Exact Change follows twenty-five Milwaukee high school students on a civil rights bus tour through Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. The story
shows how a first-hand look at the struggle for civil rights impacts the students, and how the experience changes their attitudes and approaches toward race relations."

[At left: a young man, also pictured above, who seems initially disinterested about Ms. Bland's presentation, is called out by Ms. Bland, and temporarily leaves his classmates, heading back to the bus. Filmmaker Rivera, also a chaperone, steps out of his filmmaker role, and engages him in conversation. Subsequently, the young man not only apologizes to Ms. Bland, but also leads the group in marching across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the Selma to Montgomery March began.]

Is the history of the civil rights movement merely a passing curiosity, or does it still have an important role to play in the lives of today's young people? In a week when issues of race and history are looming large in the face of the controversy over President Obama's reaction to the Cambridge police's alleged mistreatment of distinguished Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, it's a question well worth asking.

Please join us for this week's edition of Forward Forum, and please join in our conversation by calling us at 608-321-1670.

Courtesy of the Veoh website (brief free registration process may be required), the 66 minute documentary Exact Change can be viewed online. See also this short report on the film by WISN-TV's Mike Gousha.

Recently "retired" from her post as co-founder and longtime executive director of the National Voting Rights Museum, Ms. Bland continues to speak at venues across the country, and conducts civil rights-themed tours, featuring her participatory and compelling narratives, for people of all ages and background through an organization called Journeys for the Soul; email: Her next visit to Madison has been tentatively scheduled for late February of 2010.

Below: Ms. Bland marches across Selma's historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 2007 in the company of then presidential candidate Barack Obama, and civil rights movement leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery (who delivered the keynote at Madison's 2008 King Day celebration, and the closing prayer at Obama's 2009 inauguration). Both candidate Obama and his then-opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton (see wider shot, pictured at right with former president Bill Clinton), delivered emotion-filled speeches during their respective pilgrimages to Selma at that time. During that visit, Obama broke away from a black tie dinner, to spend three hours one-on-one with Ms. Bland at the National Voting Rights Museum, reveling in the history of a movement that made his historic run for the presidency a possibility.

More ripples from the Wisconsin to Selma Connection.

Ms. Bland's most recent visit to Madison was in January, which dovetailed with her appearance as King Day keynote speaker at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee (a role she also performed last year at Beloit College). The illustration below, from the Cardinal Stritch website, is symbolic of the resonance between Ms. Bland's visit, and the historic inauguration of the nation's first black president, which occurred the next day.

Photo from August of 2006 with Ms. Bland (below at left) with fellow Selma to Montgomery march veterans Lawrence and Dorothea Huggins. Back row: Rev. Darrel Richey, pastor of Madison's James Reeb Unitarian Universalist congregation, and Forward Forum host John Quinlan. Richey and Quinlan helped conduct a half dozen interviews with several of the "untold heros and heroines" of the civil rights struggle. Richey's congregation is named for a former U.U. pastor, an ally who was martyred during the weeks preceding the march, and upon his return to Madison, Rev. Richey continues to speak out about this important history.

John Quinlan has maintained an ongoing supportive friendship with Ms. Bland, providing technical and financial support for her work and for associated oral history projects, and inviting her back to his radio show on numerous occasions to comment on the resonance of history with the 2008 presidential election. After rendez-vousing with Ms. Bland in Atlanta, he returned with her to Selma in August of 2008, where they watched Barack Obama's nomination at the Democratic National Convention together in her home. Ms. Bland, in turn, was in Madison during the inauguration, and Rev. Richey and Quinlan were privileged to view that historic occasion together with her. As noted above, while Ms. Bland has spoken extensively to UW-Madison students to powerful effect, and in venues throughout the Milwaukee community through a decade of visits, only a relative handful of people in the non-university greater Madison community have heard her powerful message--something that we hope to change in months to come.

Highlights of Past Forward Forum shows with Joanne Bland (more to be posted shortly):

August 25, 2006
Forward Forum host John Quinlan broadcasts live from the National Voting Rights Museum, with its co-founder and then executive director (she retired from this position after 15 years in April 2007), Joanne Bland. Ms. Bland takes listeners on a guided walking tour of the museum in the second hour. After an introductory segment with Ms. Bland, we're joined by Spencer Overton, author of "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression." Laura Gutknecht anchors from back in Madison, in the company of former museum intern and UW grad student Tyina Steptoe (who has since finished her PhD, and now lives in Seattle). Then in our third hour, we interview Howard Bayliss, the president of the LGBT rights group, "Equality Alabama," and summarize our show with commentaries by the Rev. Darrel Richey (also on the ground in Selma), Laura, Tyina and John. See also: Texas native Tyina Steptoe's outstanding blog about her several month-long internship in Selma, and its cross-cultural revelations, Lone Star in Selma .

Nov. 4, 2007
Joanne is joined by Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison Comm Arts professor Sue Zaeske and students Mary Carter, Charles Hughes, Mobolaji Falomo, and Alan Pietrowicz. The students share the life-changing nature of their trips to Selma, where they were guided on a tour of history by Ms. Bland while also helping to capture that history through a variety of hands-on projects. interviews.

Other links to stories about Joanne Bland, and related recent events in Selma:

Baylor University Magazine

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Site Interview

Eastern Mennonite University

University of Wisconsin-Madison press release chronicling a 2002 trip to Madison in the company of other civil rights leaders

UW-Madison release about a 2004 Chadbourne Residency Program's civil rights event, and Ms. Bland's particiption

October 29, 2002 UW-Madison Daily Cardinal article

October 29, 2002 UW-Madison Badger Herald article

New York Times video presentation, with an interview with Ms. Bland, following the Nov. 2008 election

New York Times March 2007 article on visit of Senators Obama and Clinton to Selma

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