A Selma Story
Our synagogue, Ohev Sholom traveled to Selma, Alabama to better understand and be inspired by the city’s deep civil rights history. Our tour guide was a woman named Jo Ann Bland, who, at age 11, was the youngest to march from Selma to Montgomery.
Jo Ann took us to a dilapidated building on a dusty, treeless street that looked as though it had not changed much since the sixties. The boarded-up structure used to be a shoe store. Jo Ann shared a story that took place when she was a little girl and went with her grandmother to buy shoes. Jo Ann recalled spotting a beautiful pair of shoes and immediately knew they were “her shoes.” Excitedly, she tried them on. Her grandmother began scolding her. She did not understand why, and felt embarrassed, as the store was crowded with people. The storekeeper then picked up the shoes, boxed them up, and demanded payment. Jo Ann’s grandmother explained that the shoes were too large and asked to have them in a smaller size. The storekeeper responded that he could no longer put the shoes back on the shelf. Why? Because Jo Ann had touched them.
This humiliating experience affirmed for her the sense of freedom and basic dignity denied to Selma’s African American community. And it was one of the experiences that drove Jo Ann to devote her life to the struggle for civil rights.
Our group of 125 was silent after hearing her story. I remember that the children among us were particularly impacted. Jo Ann took us back to her experience – and helped us feel what she must have felt. Hearing her story, so powerfully told in the exact spot where it took place was unforgettable.
I hope to continue to pass on Jo Ann’s story to others – and feel deep gratitude to her for sharing it with me.