On Monday – almost 55 years later — Sheyann Webb-Christburg recounted what happened as those 600 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were attacked by Alabama state troopers on horseback.
Webb-Christburg, the opening speaker for the 2020 Black History Month lecture series at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, told a tale of how her life intersected with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams and John Lewis in the days before the “Bloody Sunday” march of March 7 and a “Turnaround Tuesday” march attempt two days later.
Webb-Christburg and her childhood friend, Rachel West Nelson Milhouse, wrote a book about their experiences in January-March 1965 with journalist Frank Sikora, “Selma, Lord, Selma.”
“I hope something will be said that will strike a chord to make you want to do something to make a difference,” Webb-Christburg told the audience of about 100 members of the college community. “It was when I was eight years old, growing up in the Selma civil rights movement when my life was changing without me realizing it.”
Webb-Christburg told the audience how she and West Nelson Milhouse were playing near Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma in early January 1965 when a caravan of cars pulled up to the church and several men got out.
““As my best friend and I went up to those cars, we saw these men surrounding this particular man,” Webb-Christburg said. “As one man was getting ready to put this suit coat jacket on this man, he looked at us and said, “Do you know who this man is?” And of course, we didn’t know who any of them were. He said to us, “This is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” and the way they surrounded him we knew he had to be special.”
King asked the two girls their names, where they lived and where they went to school, Webb-Christburg said. As the men headed to the church for a meeting, she said, one of the men told the girls to go play. King said no, she said, brought them inside and got them two chairs before sitting in front of them.
“One of the questions he asked us was, “What do you little girls want?’ ” Webb-Christburg recalled. “And we looked at each other, not knowing how to answer that question. He said, ‘When I ask you children what do you want, you should say what?’ He said, ‘Say it loud, children, what do you want? What do you want? Say it now, what do you want? Freedom.’ ”
And he said to us, ‘Children, now when I ask you when do you want it, you need to say what? Now,’ ” Webb-Christburg added. “That was my first acquaintance with the late, great, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Webb-Christburg and her friend came to several more strategy meetings between King and supporters at Brown Chapel for the approaching Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights protest march, even though her father wanted her to stay out of the trouble that might arise.
“Dr. King would kiss me on my cheek and say to me, ‘A movement is about to come to Selma. When I come back, I want to see you little girls.’ ”
“I couldn’t wait until Dr. King came back. Flyers went out into the community about that mass meeting. Rachel and I would be there sitting on the front pew, singing freedom songs with all those courageous people who were there.”
Webb-Christburg said that, on March 7, she left a note on the washing machine for her parents that she was going to the march and then sneaked out the back door of her house and went to Brown Chapel. There, marchers got instructions to keep facing forward when they encountered hostile police and public.
Several marchers tried to discourage Webb-Christburg from marching as they lined up outside the church. Margaret Moore, a teacher, also tried to convince her to stay home that Sunday.
“There weren’t many teachers who would take the risk of losing their jobs to participate in that march,” Webb-Christburg said. “I went to her and she was trying to discourage me too, and I was crying, just started crying because it was like I was alone and I knew what was in my heart. She held me as I continued to cry. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘OK child, let’s put our marching shoes on.’ ”
As the marchers — led by future Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Southern Christian Leadership Conference standout Hosea Williams — walked to the outskirts of Selma, they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate general and reputed Ku Klux Klan leader. People had begun throwing things and spitting at the marchers, Webb-Christburg said.
“My heart had begun to just rumble,” Webb-Christburg said. “It was like I was looking at a sea of blue. Hundreds of state troopers with billy clubs, policemen with tear gas masks, the dogs and horses. My heart had begun to beat faster because I knew that something was about to happen.”
As the marchers kneeled to pray on the bridge, Webb-Christburg said, police ordered them to turn around. The marchers refused.
“After the marchers refused, racism unleashed its brutality,” Webb-Christburg added.
State Police on horseback charged the marchers, and troopers also released dogs and fired tear gas. The marchers ran for their lives back to the Selma side of the bridge, chased by the troopers and dogs.
“I’ll never forget as I was running, the late Hosea Williams picked me up and my feet were still galloping in his arms,” Webb-Christburg said. “Tear gas was still burning my eyes, and I turned to him in my own childish voice and I said, ‘Put me down because you’re not running fast enough.’ Hosea continued to tried to comfort me and others as we made our way to the George Washington Carver projects.”
Webb-Christburg said her parents were waiting in the doorway of their house, her father holding his shotgun. As they held the door open, she ran to her room.
“When they came to comfort me, there was this song that resonated, that we used to sing when we marched to the courthouse,” Webb-Christburg said. “Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh for me, oh for me, and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my lord and be free.”
“The picture of Bloody Sunday has never left my mind, neither my heart,” Webb-Christburg added. “Selma, Lord, Selma.”
Webb-Christburg told the audience she still questions how far people have come after Bloody Sunday, even after the Voting Rights Act and the election of an African American president more than four decades later.
“Fifty-five years later, the struggle is not over,” Webb-Christburg said. “Not only in southern states but all over the United States, racism still rears its head in an attempt to disarm people of their identity and respect as human beings.”
Webb-Christburg challenged the students in the audience to get involved in their country.
“You are at the right point and at the right time in your life to get involved and to improve situations and implement plans for positive change. We’re living at a time of increased uncertainty, a time when issues ranging from politics to our economy, jobs, health care, finances, climate change, terrorism and war that can impact all of our lives. At the end of the day, the road to recovery will depend on us.”