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It began on the chilly morning of January 11, 1965, as a little girl left her family's apartment at 312E of the George Washington Carver Homes in Selma, Alabama, and started the two-block walk to school. She was slim, pretty, and bright-eyed, with a slightly upturned nose. Her hair was in pigtails and the ribbons tied about them fluttered as she bounced along. Sheyann Webb was eight, a third-grader at Clark School.
People ask me when I joined the movement in Selma. And I can't really answer, because it wasn't a formal thing. You didn't enlist. You just were, or you weren't.
My name is pronounced like the capital city of Wyoming, but most called me "Shey" for short. You drop the e so it sounds like shy. I was always smaller than the other kids and some didn't even think I was eight. I remember on that morning that I had walked down the sidewalk that runs through the middle of the project lawn. The apartments are made of red brick and they cover several blocks. They had been built in the fifties for black people (we were called Negroes at that time). As I got to the street that day, Sylvan Street, I stopped to look for cars and as I did I looked to my right and I saw these white ministers standing outside Brown Chapel AME Church. It surprised me to see them there; so I stood there wondering what was going on. I also saw some of the people who had come with Dr. King, as well as some of the Negro people from Selma. Dr. King wasn't there, but I knew it had something to do with the movement, because I had gone to the church on January the second andhe had talked about leading marches and seeking our freedom. I knew something was going to happen. People had been coming and going around the apartments for several days.
So I kept standing there, my books in my arms, just staring at those people. Time began to get away from me. I knew school would be starting soon, but I didn't move. Finally, the people went inside the church. That church was right at the backdoor of our apartment; it had been built back around 1900, and was made of red brick; it had two steeples on it. Well, when they had all gone inside, I started to cross the street, headed for school. A car went by and I waited.
Then, for reasons I can't explain, I just turned and went down the sidewalk to the church. I knew it was probably wrong. But it didn't feel wrong. Something inside me just told me I belonged in there, that what was going on inside there was more important than school.
There were about forty or fifty people inside and I sat in the back. Nobody paid me much attention, so I just sat there, sucking my fingers (it was a habit I'd had since I was little), listening to what was being said.
One of Dr. King's aides, Hosea Williams, talked about how only three hundred of the twenty-eight thousand Negroes in Selma and Dallas County were registered to vote—it was even worse in neighboring Wilcox and Lowndes counties, where none was allowed to vote.
"If you can't vote," he said, "then you're not free; and if you ain't free, children, then you're a slave."
I had to think about that as I sat there that day, because it was true. My own parents couldn't vote. They hadn't even tried to register, because they knew they didn't have a chance.
I remembered what Dr. King had said during the Emancipation Day program here on January the second:
"We are willing, and must be willing, to go to jail by the thousands in Alabama—"
He couldn't finish that pledge because he had been interrupted by a loud cheer and applause.
You had to hear Dr. King to really get his message. It wasn't just what he said, but how he said it. When he said that about be willing to go to jail by the thousands, the word "thousands" wasn't said, it was more like a quivery vibration in a loud and urgent stage whisper, and the part of the word, thouuu, just rolled through the church.
Without really thinking about it in so many terms, I just became, that day, a part of the movement to gain our freedom. Before there could be those thousands, there had to be one of us at a time.
I would stay at the church for five hours that day.
It was around one o'clock in the afternoon that the meeting ended for a lunch break. I went outside then; the sunshine was bright and it struck me that I better get to school. (I couldn't go home, because the door was locked.) With some reservations, I made the decision to go on. Mrs. Bright, my teacher wouldn't take too kindly to me coming in this late. I remember I ran then, all of a sudden, just bolted across the street and ran between the apartments.
When I got to the school—it was a white frame building then, which always smelled of pencil shavings and chalk dust—I hesitated, then went in. It was a mistake.
The door creaked loudly when I turned the knob; all eyes were on me as I came in. There was a pause: Then: "Sheyann Webb! Where have you been, young lady?" Mrs. Bright is looking at me. She glances at her watch. "You know what time it is?"
I didn't know. I shook my head.
"It's twenty minutes past one. Where have you been?"
"Over there," I said.
"Over where? The church?"
"You was over at Brown Chapel?" Louise Bright was upset with me. "Don't you know what kind of meeting they're having over there? That's a voting-rights meeting, child. That's not for children like you. Don't you know there might be trouble—might be folks put in jail. You want to be put in jail?"
I didn't know about that, so I just shrugged.
The lecture went on and I remember all the kids looking at me and I was so embarrassed. I bit my lip and flexed my leg muscles as hard as I could. But I started to cry.
And I think I made up my mind that day that I wasn't going to get in that situation again.
My momma was home from work when I got there that afternoon and I told her about missing school. Momma sewed shirts at Selma Apparel Company; my daddy worked at Cleveland Furniture Company. They had both worked hard. Even though Momma had eight children—one each year for eight years in a row—she was still slim and pretty.
So she wanted to know why I had missed five hours of school and why I had been at the church. And I told her about what had been said about us still being slaves.
I wanted to know if that was true.
She said we weren't, not like her great-grandmommas had been. But we were certainly second-class citizens, she said.
I wanted to know why. And she couldn't answer. So I told her I thought it was true, and that I was going to miss school again and go back to the church the next day. And I remember what she said to me: "if you want to grow up and be somebody, you gotta stay in school. Look at me. I'm thirty-four years old and the only job I can get is sewing shirts. You want something better for yourself."
Then she tells me that there's another reason for not missing school—the fact that going to the demonstrations can lead to serious injury, or something even worse.
"Like those little girls in Birmingham," she said, "that got killed at that church when somebody put a bomb in it. They wasn't doin' nothin' but bein' at church, and they got killed for it."
Momma tells me she don't want that to happen to me. I don't want it to happen, either, I tell her. "But if we don't do these things, like Dr. King say, then nothin' will ever change.
That night as I lay in bed, I thought about what was happening here in Selma. And to me. My older sister, Vivian, who was fifteen, had been in the demonstrations in 1964. Nothing had been won then. She had been arrested and put in jail. I didn't go to court, but my momma did and she had to beg the judge, B. A. Reynolds, to let Vivian come home. He had told her that Vivian "didn't know how to talk to a white man" and was going to put her back in the cell. But he finally let her go; she had been so upset that she went to New York to live with some relatives. If she had been here, I thought, she'd be at the church with me.
I had missed Vivian. I wished she could be here with the rest of us: Albert was seven, Joyce, ten, Dan, eleven, George, twelve, Sam, thirteen, and Johnny, fourteen. I knew Momma wanted what was best for all of us. She didn't want me to go to the church because she was afraid. She was afraid she and Daddy would lose their jobs. She was afraid I might be hurt.
So I lay there thinking about it. I was almost asleep when I saw the figure against the hall light and I heard Momma whisper hoarsely, "Don't forget, school tomorrow. Okay?"
I didn't answer. She kept staring at me; finally, concluding I must have been asleep, she eased away.
I knew that night that everything was going to be changing and I was going to be a part of it. Dr. King had said we would have to be a mighty army of nonviolent soldiers, men, women, and children, who would attack the hostility of the old plantation South at its most vulnerable point—through the conscience of the nation.
I kept thinking about the words Hosea Williams had said about if you can't vote, then you're a slave. So many black people not only could not vote, but they were even afraid to try to register. I knew that night that being a part of that nonviolent army Dr. King had spoken of was going to be the most important thing in my life.
I thought of the stanza in the song We Shall Overcome that "God is on our side." With the depth that only a child's mind could feel, I believed those words, believed them dearly.
Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.
|List of Illustrations||viii|
|SELMA, LORD, SELMA||1|
|Martin Luther King, Jr., Sheyann Webb, and Rachel West,|
|March 21, 1965|
|Sheyann Webb, 1965||5|
|Rachel and Sheyann, 1965||9|
|Rachel West, 1965||13|
|Martin Luther King in Selma, February, 1965||65|
|Sheriff's deputies keep prospective black voters in line||65|
|Sheyann and Rachel at street meeting near church||78|
|"Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965||89, 90, 91|
|Deputies hem in demonstrators in wake of Bloody Sunday||109|
|The Selma Wall||113|
|A prayer vigil near Brown Chapel||113|
|Ms. Sheyann Webb, at age 19, with Mrs. Coretta King||135|
|Ms. Sheyann Webb, 19, during tenth-anniversary observance|
|of Bloody Sunday||138|
|Mrs. Rachel West Nelson, 1979||141|
|Brown Chapel AME Church and Memorial, 1979—"|
|a tribute to those who planned, encouraged, marched, were||147|
Posted February 27, 2008