(Photo: Sheyann Webb Christburg via SWG)
At a time when many 8-year-old girls were playing with Chatty Cathy dolls and jazzing up their neighborhood sidewalks with hopscotch squares, Sheyann Webb was putting her life on the line — participating in protest marches and urging adults to overcome their fears and register to vote. After a chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., the Selma native's childhood was, for all intents and purposes, put on hold.
On that fateful day, Webb and her best friend, Rachel West, were playing in front of Selma's famed Brown Chapel AME Church when a group of cars pulling up piqued their curiosity.
"Dr. King had come to Selma with his entourage for a meeting there. We got closer and one of the men said, 'Do you know who this man is?' Of course we didn't know who any of them were," Webb recalls. "He said, 'This is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' and the way they surrounded him and acted around him, we knew he was special."
The feeling was mutual. When a member of the entourage tried to stop the girls from trailing King into the church, the civil rights leader invited them in and spent a few moments talking to them about fighting for freedom.
"That was our first acquaintance with Dr. King. He said he wanted to see us before he left Selma that day and that a movement was coming," Webb says.
When she told her parents later that she'd met King, they didn't share her excitement and Webb sensed some fear. Her father warned her to "stay from around that church and that mess," but didn't immediately explain why.
It was a conversation that many parents throughout the South were having with offspring much older than eight to discourage their involvement in the civil rights movement for both safety and practical reasons. Jim Crow carried a big stick and was not shy about using it and some employers actually threatened to fire them if they didn't keep their children in line.
But Webb, who felt the racism around her acutely, also felt compelled to learn more about King and his movement. When she went to doctor's appointments, for example, she noticed the "For Coloreds Only" and "Whites Only" signs in different rooms. They also hung above public water fountains. In some neighborhoods, the only Blacks permitted to enter were the maids and only on days when they were working. A Mr. Misty slush or vanilla soft serve ice cream cone from the Dairy Queen was out of the question — no coloreds allowed.
"As a child, I was inquisitive about those things and every time they took me in surroundings like that I would ask questions," Webb told BET.com. "Why? Why do we have to sit here and them over there? Why do their areas look better than ours? Why couldn't we go into certain stores and they could?"
So, Webb, sometimes accompanied by West, began slipping out the back door to attend mass meetings. She also marched, handed out flyers and sold copies of the Selma Courier, a newspaper that kept people up to date on movement activities. Some people were afraid to be seen reading the flyers or newspapers, she recalls, and that fear was even stronger when she went door-to-door encouraging Blacks to vote.
"As a child, seeing some of the fear that existed in the hearts of people in the counties and even in the cities was amazing to me and made me want to be even more involved," Webb said. "Some wouldn't open the door, others would slam the doors in our faces once they found out why we were there."
Webb's parents worried about her safety but were comforted by the fact that the adult activists had taken her under their wings. She was unfazed by any punishment they might hand out, but sometimes brought home fellow Freedom Fighters who needed a place to stay for the night to avoid a spanking. And despite their fears, Webb's parents began asking her questions about what was going on in the movement.
Although they may have been softening slightly, there was no question that they did not want her anywhere near the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. But despite their threats, efforts by West to discourage her and her own concerns for her safety, Webb was determined to go.
So on March 7, 1965, the day now known as Bloody Sunday, Webb went to Brown Chapel Church, but instead of heading to the pew, she lingered in a back row, as people prayed, sang freedom songs and then received instructions about the march.
"I remember when they were asked to lineup in front of the church, as I was walking out, people tried to discourage me," she recalls, including the late Margaret Moore, one of the few teachers who had the courage to participate in the struggle at that time. "Even she was trying to tell me, 'Baby, you don't need to march today.' But in spite of her discouragement, she took my hand and we started making our way to the bridge, singing freedom songs all the way."
The memory is as vivid today as it was 50 years ago. The closer the marchers got to downtown Selma, the harder and louder they sang. Along the route, mobs of angry whites threw things at them from the sidelines and some even spat at them, but they held their heads high and kept moving forward.
"I was very frightened. It seemed to me that the closer we got to the bridge, I became more frightened. When we got midway [across it], I looked down to see hundreds of policemen and state troopers with tear gas masks, Billy clubs, dogs and horses and my heart began to beat very fast," Webb told BET.com. "But even in the midst of that, I was determined to stay."
Suddenly, Webb recalls, the march's leaders, including now-Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), asked the marchers to kneel down to pray. When they rose, they were instructed by law enforcement officials to turn around, but the leaders refused.
That's when "racism unleashed its brutality on us. Tear gas had begun to burst in the air and people were being beaten down to the ground. Dogs and horses were running into the crowd trampling people as if we weren't even human beings," Webb said. "I began to run and that brought more fear."
As she tried to make her way across the bridge to safety at home in the George Washington Carver projects, images of people "crawling, crying, bleeding and fallen down" were seared into her memory.
The late civil rights leader Hosea Williams scooped Webb up to carry her home, but her "little legs were still galloping" as he held her in her arms.
"I turned to him with tear gas burning in my eyes and said, 'Put me down because you're not running fast enough'," Webb said.
Both parents were standing in the doorway when she finally arrived at home — the father with a shotgun. Webb ran between the two of them up the stairs to her bedroom and, recognizing how devastated their daughter was, they put aside their anger and fear to comfort her.
They put their foot down, however, when Webb wanted to go to the church to commiserate with the other marchers. So she took some paper and a pencil out of a drawer and began to write her funeral arrangements.
"That was the day that I truly understood the meaning of that song, Oh Freedom,' that I often sang with the Freedom Fighters," Webb said. "And it was an experience I'll never forget. The picture of Bloody Sunday has never left my heart or my mind."
Webb describes that day as the most traumatic of her life, yet on March 21, when activists set out across the Edmund Pettus Bridge a second time, she was right there.
"I disobeyed my parents again. There were certain miles where all of the marchers would stop to rest and eat and when I went up to Dr. King, he asked questions like who I was marching with," she said. "He thought it was my parents and when I told him they didn't know I was there, he had his secretary call to say I was in good hands."
Her father came to pick her up, but this time he was more proud than angry. Webb also was there at the end of the march.
One of the saddest days of her life, Webb says, was the day she learned that King had been assassinated.
"It was almost like having a parent or my best friend killed," she recalls.
Webb had come home from a Girl Scout meeting to find her parents and siblings glued to the television. They didn't have to say a word for her to know that something awful had happened.
"I guess they didn't know what to say or how, but I knew something wasn't right. Then it came across the news and whatever I had in my hand I just dropped and started crying and screaming," she recalls. "My parents tried to comfort me but all of us were in a crying rage because this death shocked the nation."
Overwhelmed by grief, Webb began to write about her experiences in the movement and her friend. Throughout the process, tears dropped onto the pages. She was so sad that, fearing she was falling into depression, her father offered to drive her to Atlanta to attend King's funeral.
"I was happy about that, but also so sad," she said. "He was so special to me. In listening to him speak when I was that little girl I learned a lot because I knew and it didn't take me long to understand why he was there to join in the struggle for the betterment of not just our community but the world."
Webb continued to work in the movement after the death of King, who had a profound impact on her life.
"I think that what the movement did for me was to build great character in me and motivated and inspired me to get the best education that I possibly could," she says. Even though I knew my parents didn't have the money to send me to college, I was determined to do so. Dr. King talked to me a lot about that. He gave me hope and a new sense of direction."
King, Webb says, gave her a passion and a purpose and the need to touch other people's lives as the great man once touched hers.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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