A black wreath hangs on the front door. Sheyann Webb Christburg is the youngest Freedom Fighter to participate in the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. She buried her father last week and is in town cleaning out his home.
A self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” she remembers vividly, just how much her father opposed her participation in the march. However, her mind was made up. She was determined to join the fight for freedom at only eight-years old.
While playing with her friend, Rachael, at the historic Brown’s Chapel Church close to the projects where her family lived, she had her first encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A man said to us, ‘Do you little girls know who that man is?’” Christburg says. “‘That’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’”
As soon as King saw the girls, he came over and talked to them, asking them about themselves. Christburg remembers that when he turned to go into the meeting, the other man told them they had to leave but Dr. King told them to come with him.
Christburg sits in her dining room, the bright white table cloth matches her smile as she begins to talk about the man who reached her like no other that day.
“He grabbed us by our hands and took us into the church with him,” Christburg says. “Then, as they were preparing to have this meeting, Dr. King went and got two chairs and sat them in the back of that room and he asked us to have a seat and he continued to talk to us. It made us feel so special.”
Her parents didn’t support her involvement with Dr. King or the Civil Rights Movement. In the midst of so much racial tension, her father warned her to stay away from Dr. King and the Brown’s Chapel Church where protest strategy meetings and rallies were held. Christburg would skip school to attend the meetings.
“Because of my participation [in the movement] and skipping school,” Christburg says, “my parents had to come to the school many times to talk to the principal.”
On the morning of March 7, 1965, Christburg left a note to her parents on the washing machine. In the note she told them why she had to participate in the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then she left her home and walked to the church. Normally, Christburg would sit in the front of the church, but on that particular day she chose to sit in the back and watch the demonstrators prepare themselves for what was about to come.
“There were about five-hundred people there and after the instructions had been given, the prayers had been prayed and the songs had been sung,” Christburg says, “many saw me sitting there and they tried to discourage me themselves.”
She joined in anyway. Despite what people told her, Christburg was determined and she lined up with the rest of the marchers. Whites waited on the sides of the street, throwing things and calling the marchers names, but she walked with her head high.
“When we got midway up the bridge I saw hundreds of policemen with billy clubs, dogs, and tear gas masks,” Christburg says. “My heart began to rumble.”
After the police told demonstrators to turn around, and after they refused, the protesters were beaten, bit by dogs and sprayed with tear gas.
“As I was running, Hosea Williams picked me up and I was still galloping in his arms and I said to him, ‘put me down cause you aren’t running fast enough’” Christburg says.
So, she ran out of his arms and down the bridge, as dogs and policemen on horses chased people all the way to the George Washington Carver housing projects where she lived. Her parents were waiting for her in the doorway –her mother had open arms, her father held a shotgun in one hand.
In the years since that day the battle to vote has continued. It’s no longer about the right to register to vote as much as the limiting of the vote’s power through redistricting—as in last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the lower courts to revisit their ruling on newly drawn district lines. The U.S. Supreme Court said accusations of racial gerrymandering had merit. Also, Christburg worries about young people who don’t even bother to vote or who are uneducated about the voting process—and the political process in general in the U.S.
“The power of the vote changes things,” Christburg says. “We have to groom our young people. They should be excited to vote. The vote makes a powerful difference as it relates to all of our lives.”
By Ahjahnae LaQuer