“THE GOOD FREEDOM, Part Two.” An interview with Joanne Bland.

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Joanne Bland, a native of Selma, AL, participant in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum, and life-long activist for civil and human rights.

The town of Selma does not reveal itself slowly from the highway. There is no magical, ethereal reveal as you crest a tree-lined hilltop and look down upon the Valley of Peace and Love and Civil Rights. You don’t even take a left or a right.

The town — or more specifically the Edmund Pettus Bridge — simply appears in front of you around a curve at the end of the highway with an almost breathtaking lack of fanfare or pretense.

The bridge is monolithic in its simplicity. Named for a Confederate general, U.S. Senator and one-time Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a steel through arch supported by nine concrete arches spanning the Alabama River.

Built in 1940 in the midst of the terror that was the Jim Crow South, the bridge was designed by Selma-native Henson Stephenson to replace a two-lane wooden swing bridge that had been in place there since 1885.

These days it’s just a bridge, slightly higher on the west side than the east to accommodate the bluff upon which the town of Selma was built. Cars and trucks glide over it with surprising regularity — their drivers perhaps only fractionally aware of the history spinning across their tires.

The bridge was declared “functionally obsolete” in 2011, an official designation signaling that is was no longer capable of bearing its current traffic load. Two years later, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, it was declared a national historic landmark.

It is this dichotomy that cuts to the core of the bridge, to the city of Selma, to the axis of American race relations itself — a bridge no longer capable of serving its intended purpose, literally and figuratively borne with the weight of its own history.

Perhaps someday someone will get around to fixing it, shoring up its structural faults, painting over the graffiti spray-painted at its base (Jay + Celia wrapped inside of a heart).

Then again, maybe they won’t and the bridge will continue to deteriorate until it finally collapses under the twin pressures of corroding steel and time, the ghosts of historic footsteps on the pavement slowly sinking to the bottom of the river below.

Much like the bridge, the town of Selma itself appears frozen in time, it’s glass-plated storefronts, art deco facades and narrow streets looking much the same as they did in photographs taken many decades before. Broad Street serves as the town’s main thoroughfare, the branches of smaller streets and avenues stretching outward from its center.

The Dallas County Courthouse — where Joanne Bland was arrested for the first time at eight years old — lies just west of Broad Street. Brown Chapel A.M.E., the church where Dr. King first spoke to the people of Selma, is just a five-minute walk.

The town is emptier these days than it was in 1965 — the result of several rounds of white flight over the intervening years. Many of the storefronts along Broad Street are empty or boarded up. Some of the sidewalks have cracked open, green sprouts hungry for sunlight pushing their way through the concrete.

Incorporated in 1820, Selma was founded by William R. King, a North Carolinian farmer and slave-owner who served as Franklin Pierce’s vice president for six weeks before dying of tuberculosis. The name Selma, which came from the Ossianic poem “The Song of Selma,” roughly translates as “high seat” or “throne.”

The town did indeed serve as a significant trading post during the height of the cotton boom in the South — the major exchanged goods being, of course, cotton bales and human beings. During the Civil War, it was a high-level armaments manufacturer and shipbuilding center before being overrun by Union forces in the Battle of Selma in 1865.

There are traces of the Confederacy threaded throughout modern-day Selma, much as there are through many Southern towns. Confederate flags peak out of the windows of a few homes and adorn the backs of more than a few cars driving through the city’s streets.

A bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest occupies a proud corner of the Old Live Oak Cemetery on the western edge of town.

DEFENDER OF SELMA, the General’s plinth declares. WIZARD OF THE SADDLE. UNTUTORED GENIUS.

Over the past few years, there had been some momentum around town to remove the monument as well as other remnants of the town’s Confederate roots. These calls were met with strong resistance.

In May of last year, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the “Alabama Memorial Preservation Act,” preventing the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the state.

In this way, Selma is a town at odds with itself, just as desperate to reconcile with the pain of its history as it is to avoid it altogether.

Following the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015, there was another small but fervent student-led movement to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge. After all, given the bridge’s history and the place it occupies in the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, why retain the name of a Confederate officer who served as a leader of the Klan?

A bill to rename the bridge even passed in the Alabama State Senate in June of that year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the renaming effort met resistance led by some of the very people who suffered the most upon the bridge’s pavement. John Lewis, the Civil Rights hero, leader of the SNCC and Georgia congressman who was beaten at the mouth of the bridge on Bloody Sunday, rejected the idea of renaming the bridge in 2015.

“We can no more rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge than we can erase this nation’s history of racial intolerance,” Lewis wrote at the time.

Perhaps keeping the name is whole the point. Dr. King led hundreds of black men, women and children across a bridge named for a man who spent his life fighting for the causes of slavery and white supremacy. They prayed on that bridge, they bled on that bridge, they walked across it three times before they were finally allowed to pass.

They considered the bridge, its history and the legacy of the man it was named for. And then they literally walked over it, trampling the bridge’s old story and writing a new one with each step.

For her part, Joanne Bland just calls it “the bridge.” And she was there too. She remembers the smell of tear gas in the air, remembers seeing police officers swinging clubs and wearing gas masks — their faces contorted into monstrous shapes. She remembers the sound of a woman’s head smacking against the dry pavement.

She remembers it all.

In the second part of our interview, Ms. Bland remembers the events of Bloody Sunday, what happened after, and where we are as a nation today.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about the weeks leading up Bloody Sunday. Were you aware that something big was coming?

“Well, the movement was still going on — people were marching. The teachers even marched between that time. That shocked me because I didn’t know that teachers couldn’t vote. I thought because they had more education then the masses they could vote, because you had to take a test to vote. Voting wasn’t something that was given, you had to pass tests to get to it. So, I just figured people like — my grandmother couldn’t read nor write, so how could she pass that test? But our teachers could pass that test. But they couldn’t vote either.

But, the climate leading up to that — we were still marching, we had youth marches, adult marches and we had combining marches. I do remember when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. Everybody was so sad and talking about it and you couldn’t help but pay attention to that conversation because everybody was talking about it and not only was it somebody had gotten killed but… When we were little they used to tell us about Emmett Till, but Emmett Till was over there and remote but Jimmie Lee Jackson was right down the road! I had never been to Marion, but the way they talked about it, it was like it was just across the street somewhere someone had been killed. Everybody was angry and upset. The women were crying. And it was just crazy. And everybody was walking around sad.

So, even the children we were having our conversations and our interpretations about, you know, ‘They just keep killing us, they kill us’ and then somebody brought up Emmett Till. So, it wasn’t our first death, right? And those were just the ones that had been publicized. As we grew older we realized that was just a drop in the bucket. But, when they decided to march, everybody was happy and wanted to go. And, even I wanted to go but they wouldn’t let me go. My dad just said we couldn’t go. But he did agree for my sister Linda to go and if Linda was gonna be there we were gonna be there too.

And I can’t help but think that now, today, that they must have known that we were not going to Montgomery that day. There was a possibility that we wouldn’t go. Linda said they also talked about a possibility of violence. They lined up on the playground of George Washington Carver Homes — that’s probably where I was in the beginning. But when they started to line up, I got in line too. I wanna march too — especially when I saw Linda. So I got in there and they lined up and it was horrible.

We marched down Broad Street all proud but it was strangely quiet. Normally, we had hecklers on each side, heckling us. But it was nobody, just solemn, walking slowly — usually we walked with a purpose and this time we walked slowly. And I can’t help but think the adults knew something was wrong. But it was too late for us to turn around so we kept going. When I crested the bridge, I saw all of them — I saw all the policemen lined all the way across all four lanes. Then as we came down further I saw they were lined on the service roads on both sides, some sitting on horses, some sitting on cars. I knew we wasn’t going to Montgomery, so I knew my daddy wouldn’t kill me for defying him. I was too far back to hear or see what was happening, um, but normal procedure would have been for one of them to ask permission for us to pass and they would say no and then the front would go down on their knees and we would follow suit. So I waited for the front go down when I hear gunshots and screams — I think they’re killing the people up front.

Before we could turn around it was too late, they came in from both sides. The front and the back, just beating people. People lay everywhere bleeding, not moving. I don’t know what I was thinking at that time — just scared, you know? My mind went blank cause I had never experienced anything like that. But the gunshots were tear gas canisters. And now we’re really disoriented. It gets in your eyes, you can’t see, you can’t breathe, you panic. It was horrible. And then the horses. You could outrun those men on foot, you couldn’t outrun the horses, the men on the horses — and they had these horrible faces. I found out later, I learned they were gas masks. And they were riding, hitting people. And then I saw this horse and this lady and I don’t know what happened after that. I can still here the sound her head made when it hit that pavement, that was the only thing I remember.

And the next thing I remember was being on this side of the bridge in the back of a car. And my sister, Linda was in the car and my head was in her lap and when I became fully awake, I realized it was not her tears, it was her blood. She had been beaten and she had wounds on her head that required 26 stitches.

Yet on that following Tuesday, when Dr. King came back, I held her hand as we followed them across that bridge. When I crested that bridge and saw that same scene, I’m not ashamed to tell you I didn’t want that freedom anymore. Whatever that freedom cost it was too much for this 11-year-old. I tried to go back but they wouldn’t let me. Held my hand and kept talking to me, coaxing me across. I remember one of them saying ‘They’re not going to beat Dr. King, come on.’ Well, I went, but I was scared.

You know, Dr. King asked permission this time and, um, they told him the same thing. I must have been the only one on that bridge that was glad, because after prayer he turned around and came back.

And then we found out about the court order. Judge Johnson signed it on the 17th and then — jubilation. Everybody was happy. We had accomplished something. We were dancing in the streets and stuff. I followed them across the bridge again and this time they kept going. And those same policemen were there the same way — horses and the cars. But this time we knew they weren’t gonna bother us. They had to protect us all the way.

But after I got to the Hall Farm, which was the first stop, I didn’t want no more freedom. My feet hurt. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my daddy. I shouldn’t have gone. I walked ten miles. We didn’t have the fastest sneakers like we have now. You walked in whatever shoes you had and I had some on that must have hated me because my feet were killing me. I was on the verge of tears when they brought us back and, then you know they made it to Montgomery on the 25th of March and August 6th, the Voting Rights Act was signed and it’s been under attack ever since.

That’s one of the things I teach the young people. If it hadn’t been — if it wasn’t valuable, why are they fighting to undo it? To take away that power of not just voting but just plain rights of citizens? Because if you exercise those inalienable rights, then our country would not be literally white in leadership. That it would change the face of America. They didn’t even kill Dr. King until he started organizing poor people, and poor people span the whole rainbow. There has to be a systematic effort out there all the time.

I’m reading this book now on how that structure that we enjoy today started to erase any contribution negroes made. From slavery, from the forced labor movement, to today. To minimize it and to take away those mechanisms that would help to level the playing field. That’s all most people want, they want the playing field to be level and not to put these obstacles in my way so that I can’t succeed; miseducation, segregation, everything. Everything was designed to make me feel inferior. These United States are something. Sometimes, it literally makes me cry to see such craziness.

Here in Dallas County — of which Selma is the county seat — in almost everywhere, when integration came, [there was] mass white flight. Took the kids out the schools and they left. And then isn’t it amazing when white kids are not in the system that the money is gone. There’s no money for education — we’re the richest country everywhere, so why aren’t our people rich in mind, in body and soul? That’s a problem. That’s a real problem.

There was study recently in the New York Times that black mothers and black infants are dying at a rate sometimes twice as high as white mothers and infants.

“Why?”

Health care. Access.

“Why? Why don’t we have it? We too stupid to take our children to the doctors? Look. Here we have one hospital. And that hospital serves about five counties around us and places like Marion? Nothing. Uniontown? Nothing. That’s ridiculous. And where are the concentrations of blacks in these United States? Where there’s no health care. Now how can you as a human being look at another human being and allow that to happen? And even though those statistics are out there, who is doing anything about it?

Here in Alabama, they opted out of Obamacare [Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which he signed into law in 2010]. And when you look at the infant mortality right now in the women, it’s some of the highest in the nation. Period. And our schools are the worst in the nation. So, how can you justify that? How can you — what excuses do you use? This world. Sometimes I think we should blow it up and start again. I really do. I don’t know where we are as a nation — it’s crazy.

But you know what? I have faith in the young people. Even though, it took the killing of most of those white kids in Florida [In February of 2018, a gunman opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, killing 17 people] to really cause them to be galvanized. You see? They’ve been taught not to recognize that black lives did matter. Because then you invented phrases like ‘All Lives Matter.’ That’s your comfort spot. I need to pull you out of that comfort spot and let you know that when you group me in with everybody else you getting past the problem. That you don’t have to face it, because it’s not up in your face. No, no, no. Black lives matter and until black lives matter you’re telling a lie every time you open your mouth and say ‘all lives matter.’ Quit saying it. Period.”

Did you register to vote right when you turned 18?

“Mm-hmm, but I think I was 21 [The national voting age wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1971].”

Giving what you had seen, what people had gone through — what you went through — what did it mean to you to be able to register to vote?

“It meant a lot, you know. I went and registered and I was so excited about registering but I don’t remember who I voted for the first time. If I had known all these years later, I would have been interviewed by thousands and thousands of white boys (laughs) and five hundred black folks, I would’ve written all that stuff down. You’d think because it was such a milestone in my life I would remember that, but I don’t.”

You co-founded the Voting Rights Museum, across the bridge.

“Mm-hmm, it wasn’t my idea. I just got kind of swept up in it. I worked for an organization called ‘21st Century Youth Leadership,’ which was also started by the same person that started the museum. And, I — sometimes, um — the children, these were active students in the community. Reminded me of us growing up — they’d see a problem and they’d try to work out something for the community. And I was impressed with them. But sometimes, us who were involved — we would share stories of us growing up and how we did certain things like manage a boycott. And talking about growing up during that particular time. And out of that — in fact, they had already started an oral history project, collecting stories of people who were there.

I was not the influence that made the museum into fruition. Now I understand it was an idea long before I even came back home. But then, I went to the courthouse to work for the state senator whose wife was the driving force behind it. So, I became his community liaison and the office manager so I could come and go. So, we started the museum. I essentially moved into the museum.

First, I had nothing to do, but it gave me the freedom to be there. Of course, when the board — we started really fleshing what we wanted it to be and I pushed the issue of having the museum across the river where it is now. Nobody listened. And I said ‘But you don’t understand. I was there and that was where the bulk of the beating took place.’ What an idea for the museum to take place. Anyway, I left in ’07.”

Tell me about the creation of ‘Journeys for the Soul.’

“You know, when I left the museum I realized I still had to work (laughs). I had to come up with something. There’s this organization called ‘Sojourn to the Past.’ And I was impressed with this program — it’s a ten-day program, the kids get college credit for going. And everybody that goes, they speak to people that were involved or were relatives. Like in Mississippi they go to Jerry Mitchell. He’s this investigative reporter — his investigative reporting was what made them convict most of these people. Like, the Birmingham bombing, they talked to him freely because he was a Southerner, he had that twang and he was white. One of the Little Rock Nine, one of the ministers that was with James Reeb when he was attacked — that kind of program.

I was just sick of the museum. The museum was becoming popular and the president of the museum — she wanted the museum to be a place of activism and I wanted it to be a museum, right? I was trying to run it as a museum and we would come in conflict daily and that didn’t help. I was miserable, to tell you the truth. So, I took a vacation to try to straighten my head because I’m torn between my love for the museum — the museum is my baby! I watched it grow to what it was and, it was just mine! (laughs). I know it belongs to the public, but it was my baby. I was in conflict, I just can’t walk away and leave my baby but I cannot continue with this. And my health was just in terrible shape. I developed diabetes and my blood pressure was sky high. I was gonna have a stroke soon.

I went on the vacation and I decided to go with [Sojourn to the Past]. I met them in Atlanta. Now, the children don’t know who I am — I’m just somebody to help and we get on the bus and we get to Selma, I do Selma and they’re all shocked and now everybody loves me. I said ‘Oh my God, this is what I wanna do!’ And the people found me! The same people who came to the museum were still looking for what they got at the museum. Because when they got to the museum, they always got me and I’d take the children into the rooms and I’d tell the story and we’d walk across the bridge and all that. So, when I decided that Selma was my thing and business had picked up, I had to come up with a name and one day I was doing this radio show, and this guy was saying that my tour had touched his soul. And it just came to me — ‘Journeys for the Soul.’”

And this feels right? This feels like what you should be doing?

“Oh yeah. This is my piece of the puzzle for social change. To take people, particularly young people but also old people, to remind them where we’ve been as a nation and to debunk some of the myths, such as this is black history. This is not black history. Last time I looked, Alabama was in America. So, to stop trivializing the history of America, to talk about it’s evils and to recognize that they’re wrong. And not let them come back again.”

Is that a concern for you?

“Heck yeah!”

There was a recent study that found that as many as one in five Americans don’t believe the Holocaust occurred or that six million Jews were really killed. Are you concerned that that’s going to happen to the Civil Rights Movement? That people are going to forget?

“Very concerned. One. Our history books — how they glorify the world of this horrible period. When my students come, I kick it plain. I don’t use language like ‘They gave their lives’ — they didn’t give anything, they were murdered. And I start by talking about slavery. You think — where did the slaves come from? We don’t say Gambia, we don’t say Ghana, we don’t say any of those things. We say ‘They came from Africa.’ No slaves came from Africa. Free people came from Africa and were enslaved here in the United States and I don’t think they came into that willingly or smiling and happy, dancing a jig, OK? And that’s the way our history was written.

Remember in the Depression? In the 20’s or 30’s, who was president? Roosevelt. He sent people out to ask questions just to give people jobs. And the questions were written to get the response that they wanted. They weren’t written to get the truth of the matter. So, when people wrote the history that’s what they had to — that’s when we started to hear about how good slavery was and the slave-owners didn’t have slaves for profit. They didn’t have slaves for profit?! Slaves were bought, sold and traded and your worth was usually determined by how many you owned. And power in the South came from you counting me, it took two of us, but it took counting me so you could have the number of representatives that divided up the power.

So that’s a problem and I point that out to young people all the time (laughs). Because I don’t have tact. I don’t have time to be tactful. You’re gonna hear my truth. At least plant the seed where people start to think.”

What do you think about the state of voting rights in the country right now?

“Sad. It’s sad. But you know in recent years, we’ve been galvanized by craziness. And the next election I think will be no different. Even in smaller places. The tide is turning because people are starting to realize that the laws that are being passed today are laws that hurt everybody, not just people who look like me. White America seemed to be comfortable while they were making laws that hurt me and not saying anything. But, now because it’s so blatant — you know that one percent are blatant because they’ve been licensed to be blatant — that the other 99 percent are realizing that these laws hurt them too.

Here in Alabama, when they opted out of Obamacare — that would’ve helped you out too. They played on this ignorance and that’s what we got now. That your children and babies are dying too. But as long as you thought my babies were dying, you were fine. You didn’t say a word. And now, I think it’s time that we realized that that poor people’s campaign was the thing that we needed, period. To not only help African-Americans but the nation.”

Do you think we still need the Voting Rights Act?

“(Laughs) Of course. Even though it’s been weakened. Not only do we need it, it needs to be reinforced again. It needs to be strengthened to be inclusive, because what they did was try to weaken my end again, to strip away any power that was recognized in this law. So they started biting at it and chipping at it. One day, I woke up and I had only one leg to stand on.

I don’t know why white America thinks we got that complex, that inferior, that ‘You know best for all of us’ yet I’m suffering and my children are dying and you can turn a blind eye to that and you can teach and perpetrate the myth that I deserve that because I’m more prone to violence, all of those things. I’ve never been violent in my whole life, I’ve just been the recipient of violence from people who don’t look like me. Period. And I don’t care what you say — poverty is a form of violence. And when you keep people in poverty, it’s a form of enslavement again. What in the world you expect me to do, when I’ve been mis-educated so I can’t get a job, you made laws to make sure that I’m convicted at alarming rates, you send me to war and put me on the front lines? All these things are in my way and you don’t wanna recognize it. And you say ‘That was then.’ No — look around you. Today, sometimes I think my life’s the same as it was in the 60’s. That’s crazy — all these years later.”

Do you think that your vote matters today?

“It would be ludicrous to say no. It better matter. Of course it matters. And if enough people voted like it matter the world would be a better place.”

You took part in the 50th Anniversary March a few years ago. What was that like?

“Oh my lord. I was just looking at that picture while we were interviewing [On the wall behind me is a large, black-and-white photograph of joyful marchers walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday]. Look at this picture. Look who’s right there, on the bottom. And all through the crowd — you see that daddy with his baby right there? That was the biggest part of that 50th anniversary that touched me. People brought their babies to be a part of this, to learn that history not just see it on TV. It was so many babies, young people. Oh my God! It just did my heart good. To see, that these parents got it. That they understood that their children needed to see it, to take part of it.

It was like when I took my grandbaby to vote for Mr. Obama for the first time. We walk in, we come around the corner and there’s this line stretching down the street. And when she saw it, you know what she said to me? ‘Nana! No Nana! You gotta take me to school first, I’m gonna be late!’ (laughs). I said ‘Shut up! You gonna thank me later.’ They may not have gotten it then, they’ll thank them later. They’ll say, when they see they were there. They were there. They took part in history. 50 years later they are walking in the footprints of history-makers. I was elated. Look at this.”

So there’s hope for the future.

“(Laughs) Yeah. I’m optimistic about the future. Especially as long as we teach our children where we’ve been. And that’s not a black thing, that’s not a white thing, that’s a rainbow thing. The whole rainbow of humanity. And to teach our children to be inclusive and not exclusive. Because now, everybody in the rainbow has the ability to tell their truth which makes it an amazing time. Even with all this evil that’s around us — these stories come out. And it starts the thinking process — the more stories these children hear about the past from people who were there it becomes real and not remote and they start to think about how they fit in the puzzle of social change. I teach each child they are the most important piece. You’re the most important piece. If you complete the picture, you’re the most important piece.”

After finishing my interview with Ms. Bland, I decided to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The whole crossing took about six minutes, maybe seven. I tried to connect myself to the moment, to feel what it might have felt like 53 years before.

The wind whipped at the folds of my jacket and crept under my shirt as I crossed. Cars passed by, sending pockets of air over the pavement. I noticed thick cracks in the concrete beneath my feet and patches of pale red rust like bruises on the steel beams above my head. I stopped for a moment and looked down at the brown waters of the Alabama River below.

It was an easy crossing, as easy for me in 2018 as it would have been for me in 1965. It occurred to me that I had crossed many bridges in my life and never once wondered if there was danger waiting for me on the other side, never once doubted that I would make it across in peace.

On the other side of the bridge sat the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, which Ms. Bland co-founded and worked at for many years. It’s a surprisingly small, humble one-story building filled with pictures of Civil Rights activists and images from the movement.

In the parking lot, a multi-paneled garage is painted with images of black history — its struggles and triumphs, it’s bitter defeats and it’s hard-won victories. One door is entirely devoted to images of President Obama’s 2008 election victory. It’s a striking tableau, featuring a pair of black hands, one holding a cotton flower, the other a freshly-marked ballot.

“Hands That Picked Cotton Picked a President!” reads a caption written in bold letters in the center of the image.

Just beyond the museum, the four lanes of US-80 stretched before me, winding around a bend of trees before disappearing along its route to Montgomery. I wondered for a moment if I could walk it, the 54-mile route to the state’s capital. Then I remembered that I didn’t have to, and who was responsible for that.

As I walked back over the bridge toward the interpretative center and my rental car, I saw a shape moving towards me. As it drew closer, the shape revealed itself to be a man, an older, black man pushing a shopping cart with an old RCA television in its hopper. He had a mess of thick, grey dreadlocks and a tangle of white beard circling his dark, weathered face.

He was moving slowly, pushing the shopping cart up the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge like a broken down Sisyphus. I was ashamed to find that I was already averting my gaze from the man — hoping to avoid conflict or even contact.

I blew on my hands as the wind whipped across the bridge. The man and I met right at the center of the bridge and paused for the briefest of moments. I steeled myself for the man’s attempt at spare change that I didn’t have.

“Say, man, what city you live in?” the man asked.

The question threw me. “What?”

“What city you from?” he asked again.

“Oh. Montgomery,” I lied, not wanting to out myself as the Yankee, city boy I was.

“Is it cold there?” the man asked, his eyes squinting in the late morning sun.

“What?” I returned, my eyes blinking at the question.

I looked at the man — really looked at him this time — and noticed his ragged Nike sneakers, his worn grey sweatpants and his loose-fitting burgundy t-shirt. He wasn’t wearing a coat.

“It cold in Montgomery today?” His voice was calm and steady. He fixed his eyes on me with no trace of want or malice. We were just two men — one white, one black, one with a jacket, one without — on a bridge, regarding each other.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just as cold as it is here.”

The man smiled and nodded, then turned back to his cart and began rolling down the slope of the bridge. If he knew the history he was walking on, he didn’t pay it any mind. He was just a body in motion, heading from one point to the next. Maybe he was planning on pushing his cart all the way to Montgomery, traveling along the same route Dr. King and his 25,000 followers did fifty years before.

I watched him go for as long as I could, until he and his cart disappeared from view. I felt a breath of shame light up my cheeks. I suddenly doubted if I had learned anything from Joanne Bland, if I had really heard her. Was it 2018 or 1965? Had things changed or hadn’t they? Same things, different names.

The man didn’t want money from me. He didn’t want anything from me. He was just cold here in Selma, and wanted to know if the journey ahead was cold too.

Billy is a NYC-based actor, writer, journalist and campaign communications specialist. You can follow him on Instagram @bfinn11 and Twitter @billythefinn