What The Data Say: Selma, Lord, Selma

by Dr.Wornie Reed, Ph.D.

Director, Race and Social Policy, Virginia Tech

When eight-year-old Sheyann Webb’s father asked her what she wanted for her birthday the next day, she replied, “I want you and mom to demonstrate with me tomorrow.”
Many of our thoughts are on voting rights as Republican legislators are curtailing these rights with substantial assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court. In contemplating this end of democracy, my recent thoughts have turned to the many individuals who presented and sometimes lost their lives to expand the vote to Black citizens.

And to feel better, I think about Black history and women’s history, and then I think of Sheyann, who Martin Luther King called the “smallest Freedom Fighter.”
Sheyann was an independent freedom fighter who joined the movement one January morning in 1965. She had heard that MLK would attend a meeting at the nearby Brown Memorial AME Church. So, she played hooky from school and went to the event by herself.

When King saw Sheyann, he called her up, sat her upon his knee, and quickly ascertained that she wanted to participate. After King invited her to come back that night, Rachel brought her nine-year-old friend, Rachel West, and they sang to the audience.
Sheyann learned more about the movement and became more and

 more involved. Despite her parents’ warnings, she would skip school and attend some of the midday meetings of the Selma Campaign and slip out of the house at night to attend the rallies, sometimes with her friend Rachel.
King would ask the kids, “What do we want?” and they would respond, “Freedom!!”  “When do we want it?” “Now!” would be the reply.
Sheyann’s parents, John and Betty Webb, were sympathetic to the 

movement; however, they did not participate and did not want their young daughter involved. They were fearful. Their older teenage daughter had been heavily involved in earlier civil rights protests and demonstrations in Selma. After she received threats on her life, they sent her away to the North for protection, virtually losing a daughter.
It was a big ask for Sheyann to request her parents to demonstrate

 with her for her birthday. But their answer was yes. Their daughter would participate despite their concerns, so they would accompany her.
After the police murdered Jimmy Lee Jackson, the Selma campaign intensified, and they planned a march to Montgomery. Though frightened by what might happen, Sheyann participated in Bloody Sunday, walking alongside her teacher, who was also participating. Of course, as the marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, police on horseback began to tear gas and beat them with billy clubs. One of MLK’s “lieutenants,” Hosea Williams, rescued Sheyann and ran with her off the bridge. Sheyann famously yelled, “put me down. You’re running too slow.”
When things settled, and the Selma campaign got court approval for the march to Montgomery, Sheyann participated without her parents’ permission. However, she only marched a part of the way as she was put in a van with MLK’s secretaries and taken to Montgomery.
After being notified that she was safe, her parents came and retrieved her. However, they drove her back the following day so she could finish the march.
She had won over her parents and helped us and the country get a few years of democracy.
Though older than Sheyann, many kids participated in the civil rights movement and became lost to history. However, Sheyann has won many awards, and she and Rachel got a chance to tell their story in the book Selma, Lord, Selma, which was made into a movie of the same name by Disney.

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