Civil Conversations: Day 4, Selma and Child Foot Soldiers


Joanne Bland participated in the voting rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. She led a tour of the city for students on March 20, and encouraged young people to create change. ©2018 Andee Erickson

Andee Erickson

The civil rights history that put Selma, Alabama, on the map started with the police brutality that killed Jimmie Lee Jackson.

In response, child foot soldiers launched into organizing marches to nonviolently demand voting rights for Black Americans. On their third attempt, marchers completed the trek from Selma to the steps of the state capitol more than 50 miles away in Montgomery, and won their fight with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Foot soldier Peggy Washington still gets chills when she thinks about the police brutality that eventually killed Jackson, who was protecting his grandfather and mother when police attacked protesters after a peaceful march on Feb. 18, 1965.

“All kinds of emotions came out of that situation because here was an innocent man trying to do the right thing, was doing the right thing, but got beaten and died for it,” Washington said on March 20, to a crowd of about 100 participating in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s 10th annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage. She spoke to the group at the Center for Non-violence a non-profit based in Selma.

At the age of 16, Washington started participating in the Civil Rights Movement. She struggled to balance the movement with her high school education.

“I missed a lot of school,” Washington said  “but I think it was more educational for me to work in the movement and have that experience than the few classes that I missed on a daily basis for a short period of time.”

At the time Washington did not realize what she was doing would have an enduring effect.

Washington remains active in advocating for civil rights and recently took a class on nonviolence at the Center for Nonviolence Truth and Reconciliation, where she spoke to students.

Frank Hardy, born and raised in Selma, followed Washington with a speech to encourage young people to participate in modern-day change, while reminding them to embrace the struggle because the path isn’t supposed to be easy.

“It’s up to you, young people day, to see where we’re going to go,” Hardy said.

On the same day, UW-Eau Claire Professor Jan Larson’s immersion reporting class hosted an exhibit at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma showcasing past journalism student’s stories about child foot soldiers and current community members of Selma.

Reporter Oniska Blevins from the Selma Times-Journal covered the event.

Eau Claire students also heard from others who experienced the marches including Dirk D. Washington, Brenda Sanders McCary, Lynda Lowery, Charles Mauldin and Joanne Bland. Bland led a bus tour around Selma where she highlighted the city’s segregated past and present.