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Civil rights activists urge Davis High students to know their history, stand up for others

KAYSVILLE — Joanne Bland and Janice Kelsey weren't much older than the Davis High School students they addressed Thursday when they took part in two key events of the civil rights movement, the march from Selma to Montgomery and the Birmingham Children's Crusade.

As children, they witnessed injustice that steeled their courage to rise up against it.

For Bland, the policies and practices of the segregated South resulted in the death of her mother when Bland was 3 years old. She died in the hallway of a white hospital in Selma awaiting a transfusion of "black blood" that had to be bused from Birmingham.

"By the time the blood got there, my mom was gone and my baby brother in her tummy, too," Bland said.

"I’m a little older than 3 years old, and I still don't know what black blood is," she said.

As a high school student in 1963, Kelsey said she was "caught up in my own world of dating, dancing and being popular. Although I had been born raised in a segregated society, I didn't feel different. My parents didn't talk about racial issues so I was aware but didn't feel affected."

But a classmate at Ullman High School whose family members were involved in the movement's choir "would come to school and talk about the mass meetings and the music and how great it was, and all of these young preachers who dressed so well and spoke so well. And she said a lot of cute boys come to those meetings. That got me."

Kelsey got permission to go, "and it was everything she described. The music was off the chain. … The house would be rocking," she said.

But it was civil rights activist James Bevel who opened Kelsey's eyes to the harsh reality of segregation. He convened a meeting with high school students and asked some pointed questions about how their schools were equipped.

Kelsey volunteered that her high school had one electric typewriter, which she was permitted to use because she was a good typist.

"He said, 'Did you know Phillips High School, which was an all-white school, they have three rooms of electric typewriters?'

"That's my first reality check," Kelsey said.

He then asked the Ullman football players if they knew why the football helmets their team received each fall were blue and white and not their own their school colors.

He said, "It's because you get Ramsay's (High School) discards."

Then Bevel asked how much they paid for meals at J.J. Newberry's, a five and dime store chain. Blacks ate at a fourth-floor counter that had no seats, while white customers were seated on a different floor.

He asked the youths how much they paid for a hotdog and a Coke, which Kelsey said was about 27 cents. White customers paid the same price, except they sat at tables in their dining area.

"When he finished with those and many other examples, I was convinced I was mistreated," Kelsey said.

Bevel told the youths, "If you want to do something about it, you can. Your parents can't. If your parents get involved, they're going to jail and there's no one to take care of you. But if you get involved, you really don't have anything to lose. After all, you're already getting a second-class education."

With that, Kelsey joined the movement in earnest.

The crusade was intended to be a nonviolent march downtown by Birmingham's youths to talk to the mayor about segregation in their city.

On May 2, 1963, Kelsey, then a junior in high school, "woke up that morning with my mind on freedom. I was so excited. I packed my purse, a change of underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste. … I left home knowing I was going to jail," she said.

A half-block from the church where the youths had assembled to pray in advance of the march, they were stopped by a police officer who informed them they were in violation of a city ordinance.

But Kelsey said she had more fear of her encounter with a white police officer than the prospect of being jailed.

"I had never had an encounter with a man of a different race, so I was very much intimidated by what I was looking at. And he had a gun and a stick," she said.

Kelsey and other participants were jailed, briefly sent to family court, then to the county jail and finally to a makeshift jail at the state fairgrounds.

"I really didn't have any fear of going there, but all hell broke loose on that Friday. That Friday, our commissioner of public safety Eugene 'Bull' Connor called for police officers and German shepherd dogs to disperse the crowd," Kelsey said.

"He also had firemen. The fireman had hoses with a force of about 100 pounds per square inch. I had a friend who had some of her hair sheared off by the force of that water. … It was an awful scene, and it was shown on national television and Birmingham's official were embarrassed," she said.

At the request of then-President John F. Kennedy, the leaders of the movement were allowed to meet with representatives of the business community, who agreed to a few concessions — adding one black person to the staffs of department stores and removing signs from water fountains, restrooms and buses that said "colored or white," Kelsey said.

Bland was 11 years old when she took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.

Organizers told marchers that the people heading the group would inevitably be confronted by officers. The plan was they would ask permission to pray, then fall to their knees. If refused, the group would return to a meeting place and regroup for its next attempt.

"As I was standing there waiting for the front to go down, suddenly I heard gunshots and screams. I think they're killing people down in front," Bland said.

Before the group could turn around, they were confronted from the rear, she said.

"They were just beating people — old, young, black, white, male or female. It didn't matter. They were just beating them. People lay there, but you couldn’t stop to help them or you would have been beaten, too," Bland said.

What she thought were gunshots were instead teargas canisters being deployed. The gas disoriented the people as well as the horses some police officers were riding. The horses crashed into the crowds, breaking people's bones, she recalled.

"It seemed like it lasted an eternity. Last thing I remember seeing on that bridge was a horse and this lady. For the life of me I can't remember what happened. Did the man on the horse hit her or did the horse just run over her? I don't know. I do know, I sit here 52 years later, I can still hear the sound her head made when it hit that pavement," she said.

Bland's sister was beaten on the bridge. The wounds to her head required 28 stitches.

On March 21, armed with a court order obtained by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the marchers crossed the bridge and marched to Montgomery.

"We went over that bridge and those same policemen who beat us up had to protect us all the way from Selma to Montgomery," she said.

Forrest Crawford, professor of teacher education at Weber State University, moderated the discussion. This was Davis High School's third-annual civil rights assembly organized by social science teacher Angie Leedy and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Crawford concluded the event by asking Bland and Kelsey about parallels to the nation's ongoing challenges with race relations and equality.

In the fall of 1963, Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists, killing four little girls and injuring 14 others, Kelsey said.

"None of those girls were foot soldiers or warriors," as participants in the civil rights movement were called, she said.

"They were just kids in church. None of them can sit here today and tell you their story."

Cynthia Wesley was among the dead, a 14-year-old Kesley had mentored at her high school.

The girls "paid the ultimate price," she said.

"I want you to know your history. If you don't know it, you're likely to repeat it."

Bland said she likens every movement to a jigsaw puzzle. "If your piece is missing, it’s not complete," she said.

Bland said she sometimes hears about issues of police brutality, inequality and racism "that parallel on the '60s and I think, 'Where am I?'

"You're the ones we’ve been waiting for. Make it happen. Take it all the way," she said.